Several restaurants have come and gone at this Belvedere Square landmark that was once a Hess shoe store. Some people are even suggesting that the building is jinxed.
New owner Leonard Clarke is working to change that perception with Starlite Diner. He opened the restaurant in late September in the multilevel space that once housed Shoo-Fly Diner, Crush, Demi and Taste.
"It's been a challenge over the years from my perspective," said Clarke, who owned the Red Maple bar and lounge in Mount Vernon before selling it in July. "My own instinct, though, is to try and put together a concept that is more appealing, casual and family-friendly with fair price[s]."
On our visits, Clarke seemed to be achieving those goals. Dinner entrees top out at $23, though market-price crab cakes could be more; breakfast hovers in the $10 range, with a few pricier items.
And there's a children's menu with choices like a big-kid breakfast with two eggs and silver dollar pancakes for $7, or a lunch tray with a protein (like grilled chicken), a side dish and fruit for $9.
Despite the promising signs, we did experience a big glitch on our first outing for dinner. We're not sure whether the miscommunication was with the kitchen or the service, but we ended up with our appetizers and entrees being delivered at the same time. An overwhelming number of dishes were scattered on the table.
But there was redemption. When we returned a couple of days later for breakfast, our courses arrived at appropriate intervals.
The place still looks familiar with its sturdy gray stones, white-washed walls and the now-closed metal sliding board that sent young baby boomers scooting to a lower level when it was Hess Shoes.
But the furnishings have been updated to create a bright, retro vibe with a kaleidoscope of colors. Azure tables, modular chairs and bright green banquettes in the upper dining room are fun accoutrements with blue-and-green-shaded pendant lights. Even the serving plates are colorful hues of mustard and tangerine.
The downstairs, outfitted with a new counter and short, stocky stools, is open on weekends and during busy times.
We didn't hear the "Happy Days" theme song when we were there, but it would fit the setting. That said, this isn't a malt shop. There's a full bar and tables in the entrance level, offering wine, craft cocktails and beer.
The menu includes influences from the Mid-Atlantic, the South, New Orleans and the Southwest. Products from area farms are listed on the menu. Breakfast is offered all day.
On the evening we received our starters and entrees together, we could appreciate the caliber of the preparations. The mac-and-cheese appetizer had cheddar and fontina cheeses glazing small pasta shells. We added pulled pork shoulder for another $2 and were glad we did. A bowl of fried Brussels sprouts was also good, with bacon bits and Parmesan cheese. But our favorite starter was the fried catfish lollipops. The wooden skewers served as handles to dip the crispy fillets into a sweet-and-spicy bourbon sauce.
Our main meals were delicious. Two slabs of meatloaf, with mushroom gravy and fried onion strings, were next to airy mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley of carrots, green beans and fingerling potatoes. And, no, we didn't mind a double dose of starch.
The Starlite burger was an updated patty with organic Boston lettuce, tomato, garlic mayo and cheddar cheese (for an extra buck) on a potato bun. The burger comes with fries or a salad. The Old Bay fries got our attention, and we're glad to have finally found a version that doesn't skimp on the ubiquitous spice mixture.
A French dip sandwich lived up to expectations with thinly sliced prime rib tucked into a terrific roll and served with a bowl of au jus.
We also enjoyed a pan-seared crispy salmon drizzled with hollandaise sauce and nestled atop the same vegetables that came with the meatloaf.
Based on the showy desserts displayed in a case by Starlite's front door, we had great hopes for ending our meal in style. Maybe we should have picked a cake or pie, but our choices were a letdown.
The warm apple crisp wasn't heated all the way through, and the fruit was buried beneath a thick, dry, cinnamon oatmeal streusel. A ball of vanilla ice cream with salted caramel sauce saved the day.
The peach cobbler wasn't so lucky; there was no ice cream to rescue it. The slice of tough crust and lackluster peach filling was bland and visually unappealing.
We didn't order dessert when we went back to the restaurant for breakfast. But we did savor a thick, old-fashioned chocolate milkshake.
Our service was better that day, with our "devils on horseback" starter arriving in a timely manner. The creamy deviled eggs with fried oyster nuggets were outstanding.
Our "smart" omelet, with egg whites, spinach, caramelized onions and mushrooms, and another breakfast plate, eggs Benedict, with a cheddar biscuit, pulled pork shoulder and hollandaise sauce, were great morning fare.
We're chalking up our first-visit problems to growing pains. We'll definitely go back to Starlite Diner. This might be the restaurant that breaks the curse.
Update: A previous version of this story named Arim Isabel as Starlite Diner's chef. Isabel has since left the restaurant. Starlite's new executive chefs are Katie Mansi (formerly of The Maryland Club) and Durian Neal (formerly of Dandelion and Morimoto, part of Philadelphia's Starr Restaurant Group).