Diner: Zen of Bar Food

Simple stress reduction and some good eats

 
Lucie M. Rice



We all like to worship occasionally at the altar of bar food. After a couple of beers, comfort food becomes a gourmet treat. Funny how that works. For our readers' benefit, we've checked out some popular — not trendy — hang-outs around town where the grub is good.

Covington
Something about a cold beer, an outdoor table and fried bar food that can melt away a week's worth of stress in a mere moment on a late Friday afternoon.

Covington's MainStrasse offers several options for a happy hour crowd, depending on your mood. Rooftop tables and a city skyline view are the attractions at Chez Nora. Imported beer is delivered to street-side tables that fill up quickly at neighboring Cock and Bull English Pub. And there's Cosmo's Grille and Pub, on the southeast corner of the main crossroads (604 Main St., Covington), offering a bar you can belly up to, pub grub that satisfies and live music after the sun goes down.

Although Cosmo's features only a handful of outside tables, the sidewalk seating offers a chance to window-shop neighboring boutiques — or eyeball the crowds filling up MainStrasse establishments these days. At 6 o'clock on a recent Friday, not an outdoor table was available at either Cosmo's or Cock and Bull.

Inside, Cosmo's bar, running the length of the narrow room, was packed elbow to elbow with a group of guys' guys, (you know the type — smoking Marlboro Reds and drinking Budweiser bottles) plus some Friday-business-casual corporate types. A few four-top tables get pushed aside later in the evening to make room for local talent.

The menu is classic, simple tavern fare: burgers and sandwiches ($4.95­$7.95), appetizers, soups and salads. Hot Legs ($6.25) are meaty, spicy chicken wings that received a solid "good" rating for bar wings. Our favorite was the Breaded Ravioli ($5.25), like classy Pizza Rolls: filled with spicy cheese and deep fried, served with marinara sauce for dipping. Artichoke Dip ($4.95) was our least favorite: No better than store-bought spinach dip with chunks of 'chokes, heated in the microwave and served with corn chips.

Too smoky for us inside, we took our chances with the sidewalk table. However, since the sole bartender/ server only made it outside occasionally, we found ourselves making the trek inside several times to place orders. But on a Friday, after a painfully long workweek, and with the promise of cold beers to come, we didn't mind. — ANNIE MCMANIS

Northside
Northside wears its rainbow badge with pride: A community of socio-economic and racial diversity, its historic streets house the penniless as well as the prosperous, and hop to a hip, cool and punk-funk diva rhythm. Businesses reflect the diversity of the people: tattoo and piercing parlors, Asian and Hip Hop clothing, a cutting-edge salon, one of the hippest record stores in the city, a respected midwifery practice, a hardware store from The Outer Limits.

Restaurants, too, range from uptown and upscale to downtown and downhearted. Boswell Alley (1686 Blue Rock Road) fits comfortably in between, with a lively, full-service bar and a menu that appeals to those in the mood for classic, beer-friendly food, as well as healthier choices. Slightly off the main drag of Hamilton Avenue, Boswell's resides in a historic building dating to 1886. (It's named after the small brick-lined alley behind the restaurant.) If the bar's main room — wood-dressed and wearing the testosterone colors of sports memorabilia — is not for you, cruise out to the charming back courtyard for some pub and grub, which is where my girlfriend and I head this evening.

In our best to-hell-with-the-diet attitude, we order — along with several refreshing cocktails — a Combo Plate ($7.95) to start. A large platter of fried-food nirvana was placed before us, accompanied by several sauces: marinara, BBQ and chili sauce with onion rings, chicken wings, potato skins, cheese stix and jalapeño poppers. We ate every delicious, not-so-oily bite. Feeling satiated with (momentary) guilt, we split a Spinach Salad ($5.75) — lots of fresh spinach leaves (which needed de-stemming), topped with red onions, hard-boiled eggs, mushrooms and croutons (hold the bacon, please). Complemented by a side of warm sweet-and-sour dressing, it lived a short life around us.

I'm always challenged to order items described on the menu as "award-winning," so I selected the Tuna Melt ($4.95) on whole wheat toast with cheddar. A thin slice of bread, pregnant with warm tuna salad and melted cheese was tasty but not quite "best of" quality.

On the other hand, my gal pal said her Tex-Mex Burger ($5.25), blackened and topped with salsa, cheddar and jalapeños, was one of the best she's had in a while. On weekends from 5-9 p.m., the outdoor grill is smokin' with grilled-to-order burgers and steaks. I'm probably the only customer here who doesn't enjoy the smell of seared flesh, but I do appreciate Boswell's family backyard ambience. — DONNA COVRETT

Norwood
On the evening of Sept. 1, 1999, a crowd gathered on the grounds of the Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Center on Montgomery Road in Norwood hoping for a glimpse of the Virgin Mary, who had been predicted to appear. Some saw flashes of light. Regardless of the experience, I bet a few of those 20,000 people ended up at Quatman Café, right across the street (2434 Quatman Ave., at Montgomery Road).

There's a kind of Zen to Quatman's, although it's perhaps not the sort of simplicity practiced at the Marianist center across the street. Nevertheless, everything here is basic and straightforward: You won't be confused by fancy choices. The posted menu offers 11 items: Hamburger ($3.05), Cheeseburger ($3.35), Ham ($3.40), Ham & Cheese ($3.79), Lunch Meat ($2.95), Chicken ($3), Fish (Fridays only, $3), Roast Beef ($4), Corned Beef ($4), Turkey ($3.40) and French Fries ($1.20).

Order a burger and your decisions are over: You'll be served a thick, well-done patty on a white bread bun with lettuce, tomato and a fat slice of onion, on a little white paper plate. The cheeseburger adds American cheese. Don't get me wrong: They're good — decent ground beef with fresh trimmings. But don't expect anything fancy.

The daily special is, of course, one choice. On this evening it was a ham-and-cheese sandwich, fries and a soft drink ($4.89). It was pretty tasty: a half-inch stack of shaved ham thrown on the grill to make it crispy and hot enough to melt the American cheese. Again, a white bread bun.

I washed mine down with a Hudy Delight; my wife had a Coke (delivered in a can with a glass of ice). We also tried Chili ($1.75 for a bowl), a tomatoey stew with whole beans and lots of ground beef, and Mock Turtle Soup ($1.75) spiced with Worcestershire and a bit of vinegar. The thin broth needed more shredded beef.

Quatman's décor is as simple and functional as the menu: Neon bar signs (and an illuminated photo of a seacoast behind the bar), dusty sports paraphernalia and several TVs. A sound system on the back bar features an 8-track player, not in use during my visit. The bar can seat a dozen or so; room for another 70 or so at tables. It's a friendly neighborhood place, one that surely gets lots of traffic after work and at lunchtime, and probably on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon for a good game. They probably even choose the channel for you. — RICK PENDER

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