Look about the room in Talley’s Meat & Three and there’s no question what owners Josh and Jessica Bufford are trying to do with their new eatery. Tables take up the middle of the dining room so they can be pushed together for multiple generations to break bread. By the wait staff station, booster seats hang above high chairs. If none of that tips you off, “Family Dining” is written boldly on the wall of the former Estilo space.
Not much is left of the old with the exception of the booths along the perimeter. Alas, the Buffords, who also own or co-own Toast, Hutch Bar & Eatery and Shoryuken Ramen, didn’t seem to have a sustainable crowd or concept — or both — with Estilo, and the changeover came quickly. It almost seems as if a focus group was organized to find out what the neighborhood wanted, and Talley’s — with a stripped-down interior, Southern home cooking and an emphasis on room for the whole family — opened its doors.
The owners have put together a thorough menu with a beverage program emphasizing Virginia craft beers on draft, creative cocktails and a brief but respectable wine list with glass-and-a-half pours.
Here’s the shtick: Each plate is anchored by meat or seafood and accompanied by a choice of two or three sides.
I had drastically different experiences at Talley’s between 2015 and 2016 — not uncommon when a new restaurant opens. It almost seems that around the new year, the Buffords waved a wand and — poof — transformed Talley’s from a clunky diner with mediocre food to a polished bistro with strong offerings.
The music is turned down a couple of notches — no more shouting above the din — and the staff, which was always friendly, now also seems to understand what’s on the menu and how it’s made. The food was so ... much ... better. Even the wait times between courses felt harmonious. Overall, my experience went up about four points.
The first time I try the rotisserie chicken ($15), it’s death by heat lamp. On a later visit, it’s cooked to perfection. Meat pulls apart easily, with skin brown and crispy. Massive chicken wings ($14) are less interesting, hitting just one note: smoke. The apple bourbon chutney turns out to be large pieces of baked apple at the bottom of the bowl. The Cheerwine smoked brisket is excellent in the taco appetizer special ($10), the meat sweet and crispy along the edges. The entree portion ($18) has long, tougher slabs of beef that need more Cheerwine magic, but suffice.
Skip the tomato-tofu mush of the veggie loaf ($14) and the Salisbury steak ($15), which looks like meatloaf but tastes like meatballs. Instead, opt for the burger melt ($13), which is surprisingly complex. It’s topped with bacon, pimento cheese and pepper jam — salty, sweet, spicy, savory. Vegetarians: Go for sides.
Speaking of, Talley’s has solid execution for some ($3.50 each a la carte). Despite being out of season, the fried okra is firm and fresh-tasting with a crisp crust. Typically, collard greens are too bracing for me, but Talley’s prepares its greens in a tomato sauce that softens the bitterness and introduces spice. Cheese grits are as they should be with thick, creamy pearls, and all of the steamed and sautéed vegetable options are solid. My heart falls flat over french fries that taste like they came from the bottom of the fry basket. I recommend getting the mac ’n’ cheese or the deviled eggs topped with candied bacon instead.
Pay attention to the daily specials and appetizers. The aforementioned brisket tacos and loaded baked potato fritters ($8) — essentially garlicky fried mashed potato balls served with a spread of lush sour cream — are both delicious. Battered and fried mac ’n’ cheese balls are massive and decadent, and make the Frito pie ($10) seem healthy with its sprinkle of micro greens overtop.
Rumor has it that Josh Bufford’s mother makes all the desserts, and she draws from an interesting catalog. The Oreo cheesecake ($7) seems to be a calling card. It reminds me of cannoli filling — part cream, part frosting sandwiched between layers of chocolate wafer crumbs. The tiramisu ($8) has the density of cheesecake, which could be a good thing depending on your taste. Bread pudding ($7) is more bread, less pudding, and definitively not as drenched as it could be.
Once the early dining crowd dies down around 8 p.m., I can see this as a place to meet friends for a drink at the massive bar or even to take a date. But remember that this is still family dining, so no matter what you order, you’ll probably want to unbutton your pants at some point during the meal. Go with it or wear an elastic waistband. S
Talley’s Meat & Three
7021 Three Chopt Road
Mondays-Sundays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.