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The Sidewalk Café does the neighborhood-joint tradition proud.

Scruffy and Satisfying

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[image-1](Stacy Warner / richmond.com) In the ever-expanding universe of restaurant genres, the little "neighborhood joint" is appealing in a peculiar way. These restaurants rarely serve extraordinary cuisine, their service is typically lax, and their atmosphere is invariably rough. Nevertheless, the experience of dining in a neighborhood joint almost always gratifies on some level. Try the and you'll see what I mean. This eatery inhabits a small and pleasantly weathered Fan building with tile floors and wood siding. Countless patrons have worn patches of finish off the wooden tabletops, and cigarette smoke colors the wall decorations. The menu features all the basic inexpensive fare you'd expect in a little neighborhood joint - nachos, a handful of large spaghetti dishes, subs, sandwiches, burgers and a smattering of beef, chicken and steak entrees, but Sidewalk's menu goes a little bit beyond the basics. The proprietor of this place, restaurateur Johnny Giavos, is no stranger to more sophisticated cuisine. Other establishments in which he has a role include Kuba Kuba and Stella's. So if you're not in the mood for nachos, you can nibble on feta and olives with bread ($3.50), and you can forego the burger, and dine on roast pork with potato cakes and vegetable au jus ($8.95), [image-2](Stacy Warner / richmond.com) scallops baked with feta cheese ($11.95), or one of a handful of pricier specials which, on the night we visited included tuna, swordfish and New York strip steak. For starters we opted for something on the theatrical side, and since the Sidewalk's menu is not exactly flambé intense, our order of flaming Saganaki ($5.95) drew some stares. Squares of mildly pungent goat cheese are doused in liquor, set afire and presented with aplomb. The liquor burns off leaving a trace of its flavor on the half-melted cheese, which is then spread with reckless abandon on chunks of bread. Saganaki is also featured across the street on Stella's pricier menu. This was as good as Stella's except that the bread was subpar - in fact I think it was a sub roll. We also ordered a black bean cake appetizer ($5.95). This turned out to be two nicely spiced burger-sized fried black bean patties garnished with sour cream and salsa. The cakes were a little pastelike in the mouth, but with healthy doses of sour cream and salsa, they made for decent snacking. For entrées, we sampled the high and low ends of the menu and found both satisfactory. An eggplant parmigiana sub ($5.25) was suitably oversized, and remarkably dense with fried eggplant, garlicky marinara and provolone. From the specials menu, we ordered possibly the most expensive dish offered that night — a New York strip steak with chipoltle pesto at $16.95. The server never inquired how I wanted the steak cooked, which I view as an oversight, but when it arrived a plump and juicy medium rare I had no complaints. The steak, which must have weighed at least 16 ounces, was presented [image-3](Stacy Warner / richmond.com) glistening on an oversized Fiesta-ware plate with picture perfect crosshatch grill marks. The tangy purée of fiery chipotles, which are jalapenos smoked over their own greens, offered a complex and seemingly perfect foil for the steak - almost like a Southwestern-style A.1. sauce. But the steak was the lone star of this plate as the accompanying Uncle Ben's rice and the medley of overcooked vegetables were without flair. Dessert at the Sidewalk is only a small step up from the ubiquitous frozen Snickers pie. A chocolate mousse pie and a banana sundae pie are satisfactory fixes for a dessert junkie's craving but otherwise unexciting. If you're in the mood for a casual meal but can't tolerate the kind of place where servers bearing goofy grins introduce themselves with the rehearsed phrase "and I'll be your server tonight!" try the Sidewalk Café instead. It may not be superlative in any category - but it satisfies like an old pair of jeans. Just don't order the "Slobodian Sandwich" ($1.50), it doesn't really exist and it'll expose you as newcomer.

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