"Sam Miller's/A Restaurant Legend." That's the plug line on the Sam Miller's Warehouse Web site and signage. The quotation above is the first of nine definitions for the word legend in my dictionary. That entry lists one antonym fact.
I know that this plug is supposed to play on the later definition; "a collection of stories about an admirable person," but it is appropriate to keep the first definition in mind. A restaurant becomes a legend after many years of offering consistently excellent food and service day in and day out. A restaurant becomes a sigh and a shrug-of-the-shoulders by resting on its laurels and playing hit or miss. Sam Miller's may be a legend now. It may have once been both consistent and excellent. If my recent visits are any indication, however, those characteristics are now unverifiable stories handed down from earlier times.
I went to Sam Miller's excited. They have recently completed a renovation, expanding the dining room and banquet facilities, and relocating the bar. Except for a few rough edges, the place is crisp and clean. It's got a very clubby feel with a touch of elegance. I was pleased to see a few ties sitting at the bar, but felt perfectly comfortable without one. The staff dress in black and white as is befitting of an old-line spot. All the new hardware and old style, however, can't distract one from the inconsistent quality of the food and the schizophrenic service.
I had some good food; don't get me wrong. The broiled crab cakes ($22.95) were excellent, as was the oysters Rockefeller appetizer ($8.95). The prime rib, the "house specialty" ($22.50) was quite good, though not served au jus as the menu stated. Here's the thing, though. It's a seafood restaurant and a self-proclaimed legend at that. My oysters on the half shell ($6.65/half dozen) were anemic and insanely tough. The "Famous Crab Soup" ($5.25) bordered on sour and had little taste of crab. The lobster and shrimp on the broiled seafood platter ($26.95) were cooked to a leathery texture. I actually thought one of the shrimp was a wilted lemon slice when the plate arrived. On two occasions, the side items (red potatoes and green beans) were served at less than room temperature. The menu is short and offers "the classics." Most entrees are running in the low to mid-20s. The restaurant has been operating for just shy of 30 years. They ought to be nailing it. Instead, it's hit or miss.
Same with the service. On our first visit, our waiter was just what I would have expected: calm, composed, right on time with each comment and course. On a later visit, our waitress was intent on getting everything off the table as quickly as possible. We felt rushed from the moment we sat down. I had to ask to have the butter returned twice. My guest's drink was taken away one-third full. My plate was whisked away seconds after I had put my fork down. I was considering a little sopping up, not to mention that my guest was still eating. It's generally accepted practice at a "fine dining" establishment to not clear one entree plate until you may clear all, so as not to suggest that someone eats too fast or too slow. It can make a guest uncomfortable. I wouldn't bring this up except that the staff at a restaurant that has been around for 30 years ought to be taught this.
I wanted to love Sam Miller's. But I went expecting a legend. While I had some very good food and was treated well, I also had some pretty poor food and was treated like a hindrance. One could excuse this inconsistency in a new restaurant, a little diner or a fast-food joint, but not in a place that bills itself as a legend. S
Randall Stamper worked in restaurants in Boston, New Orleans and Indiana for seven years and did everything from dish washing to serving as general manager. All his visits are anonymous and paid for by Style.
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.