Shoo-Fly Diner, the new restaurant from Amy and Spike Gjerde, opened mid-October in the Belvedere Square building — a former Hess Shoes store — that has previously housed the restaurants Taste and Crush.
Before their untimely closings, both Taste and Crush had respectable runs in this space. Even so, this location has taken on a reputation for being frustrating. If you talk to residents of the York Road corridor, where this handsome commercial building is located, they'll tell you that they're sick of their chain restaurants and weary of taverns that count for their dining options.
In comes Shoo-Fly, with the team of restaurateurs behind Woodberry Kitchen, one of the biggest success stories of the past decade in Baltimore dining. The owners brought in a road-tested chef, Patrick "Opie" Crooks, who showed an impressive command and ingenuity during his recent stint at Roy's Baltimore location.
It should work. But it doesn't.
Shoo-Fly is an old-fashioned diner that speaks like a farm-to-table restaurant. Or maybe it's a farm-to-table restaurant dressed up like an old-fashioned diner. Either way, it's awkward, like when Johnny Carson used to invite sopranos onto his show to sing pop tunes.
Shoo-Fly could start by giving diners a printed menu that makes sense. The one in use now, which doubles as a place mat, is too cute by half. It's both hard to read and short on useful information. Our friendly and empathetic waiter acknowledged that diners have been nonplused by menu items like Arkansas truffles (they're fried pickles) and want more information about almost everything else — what kind of bread the sandwiches are served on, for instance.
The menu is divided into snacks, sandwiches, salads and large plates. There is an additional section, "In the Alley," consisting of side dishes like creamed collards, hash browns and roasted turnips. Think of the snacks as appetizers and the large plates as entrees, our waiter told us. There's also a section for with all-day breakfast favorites like hash browns and sausage and gravy, although Shoo-Fly isn't open for breakfast.
Among the appetizers, there are things that work well, like potato-and-cheese pierogi, which the kitchen fries up to a pleasing brown crispiness, and fried liver and onions served on toast points. The liver appetizer makes sense. Take a diner favorite, reduce its size and serve it as an appetizer. It works because it's still recognizably, and deliciously, liver and onions, only in a different format.
The problem is when Shoo-Fly serves diner food that's not as tasty as what you'd find in typical diner, or even a fast-food restaurant. Shoo-Fly's version of chicken nuggets might pass the parent test, but they don't taste as good as fake chicken nuggets, which is a problem. Maybe don't do chicken nuggets?
The best dish is the fried chicken supper, a half-chicken served with cornbread and a homemade pepper gravy. It's the only dish that rises to the level of pure satisfaction, and you wonder how they pull it off without using lard.
That pepper gravy is a dandy. It goes well with the chicken and it would go fine over biscuits, but it isn't at all what you want over meatloaf or in disco fries, a bowl full of fries, with cheese curd and a fried egg on top. For those, you want a thick beef gravy to cover up the meatloaf's dryness and to coat the fries properly. The thin gravy just sinks to the bottom of the bowl.
Sometimes, like with a cast-iron catfish, the portion is too small, about half of what you've set your heart for. Sometimes, as with the chicken and dumplings, an essential ingredient seems missing, something like cornstarch or flour, or whatever it is that makes a thin broth thick — and, yes, kind of gloppy and maybe not as good for you.
A few things are just off, like the crab cake, which had a metallic taste, and the shoo-fly pie, which had an unwanted anise flavor
But there you have it. Once you tell people you're serving them diner food, they're bound to expect the attendant pleasures — big portions, gravies and contemporary no-nos — that have been part of the diner vernacular for 100 years.
Because the food isn't working, it makes other things at Shoo-Fly, especially the inventive bar program, feel contrived. And it detracts from the overall charm of the setting itself.
With time, Shoo-Fly should be able to reconcile the diner and the mission into a satisfying whole — namely, a good place to go — that residents of North Baltimore have been pining for.
Rating: 2 stars
Where: 510 E Belvedere Ave., Belvedere Square
Contact: 410-464-9222, shooflydiner.com
Open: Dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers $4-$10; entrees $12-$24
Food: A collection of regional diner classics
Service: Friendly and accessible
Parking/accessibility: Convenient free lot parking and the option of $5 valet parking Thursday through Saturday.
Noise level/televisions: The main dining room can be brassy; the upper and lower levels are quieter. There are no TVs in Shoo-Fly.
Children: The menu has a "Kid Stuff" section with things like grilled PB&J; and buttered noodles; a lower-level (unsupervised) play area has games and even a vintage pinball machine.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent:4 stars ; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]