Consider neighborhood restaurants.
Their charm, of course, is the obvious: location, location, location. When the pantry's empty or it's been a soul-sucking day at work, the 21st century default is eating out, though you may not feel like crossing the city — or, horrors, the river — to do so. If you're lucky, you head directly to your neighborhood spot — yes, again — which is less a sacrifice than a guarantee of a reliably good meal and maybe some pleasantries from a familiar server. There's much to be said for approachability.
For two decades. Lakeside embraced the Hermitage Grill, an old-school neighborhood joint with crab cans for ashtrays on the patio and a steady stream of regulars. Even after a fire and subsequent remodeling, the space retained its throwback feel.
Enter Lakeside residents Kristin and Tracey Thoroman, who bought the business in November, dubbed it Hobnob and set out to redefine what the neighborhood might want in the petite space.
The divide between the former Hermitage Grill and Hobnob is notable. The space has been painted white and a new floor installed, changing the interior from tired and stale to clean-lined and welcoming. At least at happy hour, the small bar still plays host to beer-drinking Hermitage Grill regulars, while behind them an updated dining scene unfolds.
The shift from the winter to spring menu between my first and second visits makes me hesitant to even mention dishes no longer available, except to offer incentives to come back when it's cold again.
A cauliflower starter ($8), roasted and tricked out with brown butter for richness, pistachios for contrasting texture and the brightness of lemon-zest gremolata is enough to make a believer of an indifferent cauliflower eater, yet it almost didn't make it on the menu for fear that the regulars wouldn't touch it. Wrong.
It's nothing but pure satisfaction when a supremely rich, brown butter-charged New England clam chowder ($4/6) lands in my mouth, thick with potatoes and clams.
Mild sweetness adds complexity to savory meatloaf ($11) supported by chunky mashed potatoes and gravy, while vegetarian lasagna ($12), heavy with cheese and the occasional vegetable, obliterates any longing for meat.
Presented with the spring menu on my second and third visits, I found just as many dishes calling my name. Loaded with chicken, spring rolls ($8) shatter with a satisfying crunch even after a dip in sweet garlic chili sauce. A visual symphony in shades of green, a blackened shrimp salad of asparagus, bibb lettuce and avocado ($12) takes its grace notes from red onion and lemon-pepper dressing.
The Gouda burger ($11) would have won points just for caramelized onions and basil mayo but add in how the first few bites send hot juices running down my hands and I'm smitten. Creole remoulade gussies up a hefty crabcake sandwich ($14) good enough to pass with flying colors in Maryland. And don't get me started on the killer fries, first blanched and then fried to crispy, golden-brown perfection.
The soup spoon that arrives with shrimp and grits ($15) hints at the hearty eating ahead. As if sauteed shrimp crowning, bacon-studded smoky Gouda grits wasn't plenty satisfying, yellow and red grape tomatoes add just the right acidic notes to offset the richness.
Displayed in a case near the front door, desserts are crowd pleasers and at prices that justify the splurge. Guinness-frosted chocolate cupcakes ($2) and a fat slice of German chocolate cake ($5) with nearly an inch of frosting are paeans to butter, while a lattice-topped berry pie looks like a prize-winner at the county fair.
As you might expect, locals fill up the compact space quickly, especially at dinnertime, but the first wave turns over by about 6:30. Service is every bit as friendly as it should be for an eatery committed to feeding the neighborhood, so be patient if your server is a bit slow to clear your dirty plates.
Part of the charm of the place is its effect on customers. I've overheard people talk about growing up two blocks away, coming to visit their grandmother's house nearby and celebrating milestone events at the Hermitage Grill.
Let me be clear, Lakeside. You've got a gem of a neighborhood spot in Hobnob, and while it's nowhere near my own neck of the woods, I'll make the drive. S
Tuesdays – Fridays 11 a.m. – 11 p.m., Saturdays 5 – 11 p.m.,
Sundays 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
6010 Hermitage Road