Familiar Territory 


What's this? I thought all the great neighborhood restaurants were supposed to be in The Fan.

Don't tell that to North Siders, who are flocking to an eponymous bistro that is a welcome addition to this once culinarily challenged neighborhood.

Northside Grille's co-owners, sisters Shanan Chambers and Teresa Delmendo, with help from their father, converted space formerly occupied by a hardware store to a something-for-everyone, smoke-free eatery. Chef Debbie Vaughan came over from the Piano Club and, before that, the Downtown Club, replacing Bill Fritts, who's left the area.

Families fill the spacious booths, regulars assemble at a U-shaped bar, and in the back there is a table for toddlers complete with crayons and coloring books. By spring there'll be a patio next door.

Nine or 10 dinner entrees ($12-$24), available from 5 p.m., are fairly standard fare -- chicken, seafood, steak — except for fish wrapped in soft tacos, a recipe brought back from a trip to Costa Rica. The fish changes nightly; ours was a delicate fillet of tilapia tucked into tender flour tortillas with cheddar and jack cheese.

A pair of pan-seared, center-cut pork chops, topped with caramelized peaches and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, were tender and juicy. A special of broiled scallops had just the right crunch texture with appropriate grill marks. The accompanying pilaf was sweeter than expected but resulted in a pleasing marriage of rice and peas.

Crab and shrimp au gratin prompted memories of vacation feasts at a hotel dining room in Ocean City, Md., that were a Midwesterner's introduction to the glories of shellfish. Northside's version is baked in a white wine sauce and béchamel in an oval dish packed with seafood and topped with three cheeses. Divine.

Another dish involving crab, however, was not heavenly. The ribeye steak was advertised as being topped with lump crab and Gorgonzola. The cheese was there, crumbled on the ample portion of steak, but the promised crab was and is a mystery. The first indication of trouble was in the amount. Although at $24 the dish was the most expensive entrée on the menu, that price wouldn't be nearly enough to support such an abundance of first-rate crab. The second was the appearance, which was closer to pasta than crab. And finally, there was the taste: bland and very unseaworthy. When I asked our server to double-check with the kitchen, the server returned insisting it was indeed crab.

Everyone makes mistakes, and perhaps this one was mine.

Other entrees include chicken Oscar, littleneck clams in linguine, salmon glazed with honey chipotle, grilled chicken in pasta and vegetarian pasta. The wine list includes a large selection by the glass, grouped by price, from $6 to $8.

Among the appetizers ($5-$9), the hummus platter is a standout, borrowed from the Fan's Sidewalk Café, where Chambers once worked as a waitress. It comes with veggies like yellow squash, zucchini and peas, as well as pita bread to help scoop it up. Hummus also shows up as a wrap on the sandwich menu, with cheese, in a flour tortilla.

The calamari was less successful; the pieces were small and nearly lost in crumbly fried crust.

The most tantalizing starter, lumpia, described by the server as handmade Filipino egg rolls with pork, beef and vegetables in a garlic sauce, was sold out both times we asked for it. Unlike the elusive lumpia, Northside's desserts are not made in-house.

Brunch, on Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., includes pancakes with blueberries or chocolate chips and, in a tribute to Dr. Seuss, green eggs and ham.

Most of the 120 seats are in nicely designed, roomy booths that line both sides of the space. An attractive color scheme is complemented by bead board and brick walls. The comforting look, however, must compete with acoustics that make conversations difficult.

Unisex rest-rooms offer a much appreciated innovation — motion-sensitive wastebaskets. Also, inexplicably, in addition to the wash basin, there is a washtub.

The Northside Grille gets crowded early, and reservations are limited to six or more. The service was uneven — one waitress was a pro; the other appeared to be a novice — and on both of my visits, the owners were not on the premises. It may be that they are spending a lot of time in the kitchen preparing for the evening rush, but with their professional training, they're missing opportunities to mediate problems on the floor and provide a personal touch that makes neighborhood hangouts what they aspire to be. S

Northside Grille
1217 Bellevue Ave.
Monday-Friday: 11 a.m.-midnight
Saturday-Sunday: 9:30 a.m.-midnight

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