Dining isn't rocket science. We tend to frequent places where the food is likable and the people who make and serve the food seem to like us. If a bartender recalls your cocktail on your second visit, you're probably more likely to return for a third. Similarly, if a waiter or waitress is spot-on with table service during a particular excursion, that experience pushes it higher on the return list.
On the Rox in Shockoe Bottom, the former Element Lounge, has a lot going for it — high ceilings, open windows, a fun but sensible menu and an experienced cooking staff. But several visits were flawed by poor service that, if not corrected, will send patrons looking elsewhere.
The french fries cooked in duck fat ($8), and buffalo chicken legs ($8) should have been far above humdrum, but a lengthy wait in the service window does considerable damage to their quality. Hand-cut and double-fried, the potatoes could have been crispy and inviting, a shareable and satisfying side with the well-intended beer and wine list. The lollipop chicken drumsticks, tastefully seasoned, would have been hearty and moist, showing off a refreshingly different blue cheese and celery slaw. But these potentially better-than-average appetizers spent too much time under a heat lamp, victims of inattentive service.
A brunch burger ($9), served all day, is "one part breakfast sausage and two parts beef." The over-easy fried egg addition would make for a nice spicy, meaty and yolky bite. But the egg yolk arrives too hard, cupping the side of the burger, chewy and tough. A dessert special ($6), described by a server as a caramel waffle with whipped cream and "sooo gooood" as if it had been sampled before, actually is four tiny waffles with brûléed bananas and bacon-laced maple syrup. While they don't knock anyone's culinary socks off, the fluffy waffles and bacon accoutrements make a great salty-sweet mix. I hope at some point the server gets to taste this version — maybe at brunch or lunch when it's is on the regular menu.
Lunch muddles through a little better on the service scale. A fried-to-order chicken sandwich ($8) is light and tender. The generous topping of mustard slaw adds welcome bitter contrast. The sandwich arrives hot and quick but without silverware or napkins. Peas and basil are fresh and original, as are roasted zucchini and lemon, though a little pricey at $4 each.
A chorizo panino ($8) is nicely put together and a delight to crunch through with its quick jolts of pickled garlic. It's served with the wrong side dish, which is a good error, if possible, because the braised greens are substantial, and though a little gritty, are nicely done with touches of sweet shallot.
Where On the Rox could carve a niche is during happy hour. Getting half price off everything but entrees from 4-7 p.m. is a great way to initiate a beginner to good beer paired with truffle-oil or duck-fat fries. A few nights ago, the restaurant was sporting the limited Hardywood Bourbon Cru on draft — which is sold out in many places.
Even with the iffy front of house, On the Rox is piling up fans from the cooking staffs at neighborhood joints. Twitter is filled with chatter about the good food being created by Mike Pendergast (@swineandbeer), formerly of J. Sargeant Reynolds culinary center. With those testimonials and some attention frontward, this unpretentious gastro-pub could still rise to its potential. S
On the Rox ($)
119 N. 18th St.
Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.- 2 a.m.