Dinner at DelMarVa's Southern Cafe isn't exactly the same as a meal at a charming, out-of-the-way Eastern Shore diner. But it's close.
The eatery, which opened this September in the old broom factory building on the Canton-Brewers Hill border, takes its inspiration from the region's comfort food, with a focus on specialties like fried chicken, Virginia ham and crab cakes. For the most part, the kitchen did these local favorites justice.
The restaurant's brick walls, sturdy wooden furniture and friendly vibe lend the place a decidedly down-home-on-the-Shore feel.
DelMarVa's is the first of a small chain planned for — you guessed it — Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Three more locations, all in Northern Virginia, are slated to open by the end of the year.
Arriving at a half-full DelMarVa's at 7 p.m. on a recent Thursday, the first thing we noticed was the dog bowl filled with water sitting on the restaurant's small front porch, next to a few outdoor tables. No dogs were nearby to partake, but Canton is a notoriously dog-friendly neighborhood; DelMarVa's was smart to recognize that.
The dog bowl also points to DelMarVa's casual atmosphere. It is sort-of-fast food — diners order and pay at the counter, then choose their seats. Staff members deliver food to the table.
Despite the fast-food format, DelMarVa's serves wine and beer. The menu boasts its commitment to local beverages, but during our visit, the ice-filled tubs sitting on the counter contained only a few regional products. A written list of the choices available would've been helpful.
We kept it safe — and semilocal — with a Natty Boh ($2) and a large glass of nicely brewed sweet tea ($1.99).
The menu doesn't include any bona fide appetizers, so we started our meal with the "on the side" three-side sampler platter ($5.99). Our platter included hand-cut fries, liberally sprinkled with salt and pepper, a tangle of crunchy onion straws and a hot pile of fried pickles.
The fries and onion straws were salty and satisfying, especially dipped in not-too-spicy chipotle ranch sauce. But the pickles were the best thing on the plate. Lightly coated and fried, they were juicy and full of briny flavor.
In fact, those pickles saved one of our entrees. The Chesapeake Melt ($11.29), a grilled sandwich of havarti, crab dip and "Chesapeake aioli" on sourdough, was not the Maryland-spiced flavor bomb we expected. The grilled-cheese portion of the sandwich was fine. However, the aioli got lost in the mix, and the crab dip was underseasoned and lacked that sweet crabby aroma.
We hunted for a can of Old Bay to liven up the crab, but came up empty (mini-cans would be a good addition to each table). Instead, we added a layer of pickles to the sandwich, which magically transformed it from bland into something special.
On the side, thinly sliced house-made potato chips were crunchy and salty — a good match for grilled cheese.
Fortunately, the rest of our meal was more impressive than the sandwich. A cast-iron skillet of "cheese-n-mac-n-cheese" ($8.59) lived up to its name. Creamy and savory, its lovely golden crust was laid across tender cheese tortellini swimming in a pale cheese sauce.
The chicken and waffles ($9.99) were even better. DelMarVa's substituted chicken tenders for the fried chicken part of the meal. That move could infantilize the entree, but the tenders (dubbed "Tenderjacks") were substantial. Dunked in buttermilk batter and then fried to a crisp, they were crunchy outside and juicy inside. They tasted as grown-up as any chicken fried on the bone.
Underneath, triangles of waffle were light, fluffy, and slightly sweet. Doused with syrup and hot sauce, the meal would do any Maryland grandma proud.
Desserts at DelMarVa's are individually wrapped, easy to carry out, and 100 percent locally baked. A marshmallow krispie bar ($3.99) made by the Mallow Bar in Rosedale was sweet, chewy, and worth the sticky fingers.
DelMarVa's decor is emphatically Maryland-oriented, with a wooden version of the state flag on one wall and large photos of the state alongside an oversize version of the sheet music for "The Star Spangled Banner" gracing another.
If the decor embraces "DelMarVa," the staff has the "Southern" part of the restaurant down pat. Chatty, friendly and unfailingly polite, they were there when we needed them, and they jumped to answer our questions about the menu.
During dinner, we watched small families and couples come and go, some staying to eat, some taking their meals to go.
But all of them got big smiles from the staff and a healthy dose of DelMarVa charm.
DelMarVa's Southern Cafe
Back story: DelMarVa's Southern Cafe opened in Brewers Hill in September. The casual restaurant is the first of a planned local chain, serving capable takes on local specialties like fried chicken and waffles, crab cakes and Virginia ham.
Parking: Lot in front
Signature dish: DelMarVa's chicken and waffles is a solid example of the Southern classic, with light and fluffy waffles topped with nicely cooked chicken tenders, coated with crunchy batter.
Where: 3500 Boston St.
Contact: 410-327-1980; http://www.delmarvassoutherncafe.com
Open: Sunday-Thursday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted, but catering is available.
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]