I have always loved diners: The cozy booths, the smell of bacon with its promise of all-day breakfast, the bottomless cups coffee in thick, often chipped, white mugs. The coffee wasn't always good, but it was hot, and 50 cents could buy you a full hour of people-watching at the counter (in my day, we called that "two bits").
When we lived in New York, my husband and I always had a couple of "locals" that we'd hit most weekend mornings before a day of shopping, errands, museums or, more often, naps. Which is why it's strange that the Southside Grill has, until recently, escaped my notice. Tucked into a nondescript strip mall (barely a mall really -- just a Pizza Hut, a VFW and a hair salon) off Old Seward Highway, it's in my neighborhood. And more importantly, it's in my comfort-food wheelhouse.
My friend Alison recently had a meal there with some friends and called me right away. A conscientiously healthy eater with a sophisticated palate, Alison is not a diner habitué, but her lunch left an impression. Ordering a veggie omelet seemed safe, she explained (with the caveat that if it contained canned mushrooms, then the diner "would be dead to me"). She was pleasantly surprised when she was served a beautifully prepared omelet packed with fresh, vibrant vegetables. And her friends' sandwiches looked delicious, too. She looked forward to giving it another try.
I joined her with our two daughters for a midweek lunch. Even though it was a bit late for lunch (after 1:30 p.m.), business was brisk. Before we even received menus, I had already checked a few boxes on my mental list of good diner requirements: friendly welcome, quick pour of pretty decent coffee and a comfortable, lived-in but clean atmosphere.
My daughter ordered the waffle combo with scrambled eggs and sausage ($13.95). Alison's daughter Meredith ordered the much-heralded veggie omelet ($12.95). Alison opted for the Reuben ($11.95) and I selected a Philly cheesesteak combo (a sandwich recommended by a Southside regular at $13.95).
Our sandwiches came with a salad (potato salad or fries are also an option) and a cup of the soup of the day: beef barley. This was a homey, hearty and nostalgic bowl. It was simple, well seasoned and a welcome starter on a cold day.
My daughter's waffle was typical diner fare, but she was pleased. Crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and pleasantly sweet, it came with ample syrup and a disturbingly yellow scoop of … something butter-like that refused to melt. A word on this: I love butter. My Costco membership is justified by butter purchases alone. Also, I avoid margarine. This topping seemed to be neither. Or both. It lacked the clean creaminess of real butter but, to be fair, lacked the chemical aftertaste of margarine (unless margarine has improved considerably in the decades since I stopped eating it). My guess is that it was some sort of spreadable canola-oil/butter combo. It's not terrible. But it's not butter. Did I mention that I love butter?
Meredith's omelet was, as expected, beautiful: fluffy, gently cooked and stuffed with peppers, onions, mushrooms and spinach that still maintained a bit of bite and freshness. The spinach was a vibrant green -- as if the leaves had been gently folded into the eggs at the last minute. A generous hand with cheddar cheese made the whole thing feel both decadent and wholesome in equal parts. I almost didn't miss the bacon.
Alison's Reuben boasted thickly cut corned beef that looked like it had been custom-carved -- not peeled from a pillow-pack. Ample sauerkraut and mustard gave this sandwich a bright, acidic punch that was tempered nicely by the warm, toasty bread and melted Swiss.
The Philly cheesesteak was my favorite thing on the table. I've been avoiding this sandwich lately because I've been disappointed by it so often. But I'm learning to love again. The thinly sliced beef was flavorful but not fatty, with a subtly smoky char from the griddle. Finely diced onions and peppers lent the dish flavor and texture without the stringiness that larger cuts can sometimes bring to a dish. A nice blanket of melted cheese added creaminess. And the pliant (but not mushy) bun lets you squish the sandwich down and get all of the flavors into one bite. So tasty was this sandwich that I ignored the bowl of jus that came on the side (and I dearly love a jus) -- it simply didn't need it. The Southside Grill menu offers a variety of Philly cheesesteaks and I'm making it my personal mission to try them all. It's the new year, after all -- a time of resolutions and personal growth.
I returned with my family for Saturday brunch. There was a crowd at the door, but turnover was quick and we didn't wait long.
My family stuck with breakfast basics -- bacon, eggs, waffles, pancakes, sausages and hash browns -- in every conceivable variation (Southside special: 2 eggs, 2 sausages, 2 slices bacon, hash browns and pancakes: $12.95). I'm of the opinion that breakfast can only be prepared one of two ways: correctly or incorrectly. Overcooked eggs, flabby bacon and dried-out pancakes were all once ingredients with delicious potential. So I can sum up Southside Grill's breakfasts in one phrase: correctly prepared. Eggs arrived as ordered, pancakes were moist and bouncy, and bacon was crisp. In addition, the amount of food (and calories) on the table was staggering. The pancake short stack ($7.95) made me shudder to consider the size of a full stack.
As the black sheep in my family, I skipped the breakfast menu and ordered a turkey club ($11.95). This was a straightforward presentation of the diner classic and, while not exactly innovative, it was well prepared and satisfying. The lettuce was fresh and crispy, the bacon crisp, and the cheese and turkey stacked with a generous hand. As a general rule, I embrace any opportunity to eat food embellished with a frilly toothpick. And it's common knowledge that sandwiches taste better when cut into triangles. All hail the turkey club.
Southside Grill is serving up hearty, well-cooked breakfast fare, with giant portions and reasonable prices. But their other offerings have me more intrigued. After my most recent meal, I'll admit to leaving with a bit of buyer's remorse. Diners at a nearby table were tucking into promising-looking plates of chicken-fried steak and I had to resist the urge to ask for a bite. In other words, I'll be back.
It feels good to have a "local" again.
Southside Grill Restaurant
Hours: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. daily
Location: 12870 Old Seward Highway