Familiar Territory 

Why The Corner Bar & Grill doesn't need to fake it.

Lots of Richmond eateries try to be down-home and fail. The reason is that down-home is the opposite of "trying." Down-home is relaxed, what you see is what you get and come as you are. Down-home is a waitress who seems happy, an owner who refills your sweet tea and a bar crowd that fills the room with laughter, not smoke. The Corner Bar & Grill is down-home, which is surprising, considering it has every reason not to be.

The Corner is set in historic Carver on a stretch of Leigh Street that is smack in the middle of hard times; there are eight boarded-up houses on the next block. Into this neighborhood came two partners (Herman Baskerville and Fred Marshall) with a combined 21 years in "family restaurant" chains (Chili's, Friendly's and Uno's) who decided to convert the recently defunct Sheep Hill Café into a bar and grill.

On paper the idea would seem doomed.

Yet despite the gloomy setting, the intimate interior is personal and warm. A very recognizable local news anchor is reveling with friends at the bar. The crowd is diverse — students, professionals, funky and straitlaced.

And despite the owners' corporate lineage, The Corner is free from any of the cloying enthusiasm and insincerity so common in chain restaurants. On the other hand, the menu reflects the owners' big-business experience. Wings. Nachos. Quesadillas. All over-seasoned to keep the bar crowd drinking. But tucked among them are gems. The boneless ribs feature their signature OOW-EEE sauce, which piques the curiosity of my palate. Yes, I believe that's anise in there.

Most of the menu steers clear of "clever" and succeeds at offering pure comfort food. Hand-pulled barbecue. Philly cheese steak. Grilled pork chops. All dinners ($7.99 to $16.99) come with your choice of traditional Southern sides, ranging from sautéed squash and onion rings to mashed sweet potatoes so creamy and filling they could be dessert. In addition, these meals are accompanied by generous squares of cornbread, made from a Baskerville family recipe and topped with a quickly melting slice of butter and a sprinkle of nutmeg.

Big Herm's Surf and Turf marks the top end of the price spectrum, and it features an 8-ounce rib-eye paired with four golden-fried shrimp in the same crispy, well-seasoned batter that the catfish wore. The rib-eye is well-suited to The Corner; a tender cut, it holds up well to cooks who are heavy-handed with seasoning and fire.

One surprisingly well-executed entrée was the honey-glazed salmon, which passed the sophisticated, health-conscious mother-in-law test.

That The Corner is turning out good food, however, seems oddly extraneous. When a restaurant staff — from owner to manager to servers — is this warm and welcoming, the food doesn't have to be good. It happens to be good, and that's icing on the cake — or, in the case of The Corner, the whipped cream on the sweet-potato pie. S

The Corner Bar & Grill ($)
1301 W. Leigh St.
Lunch and dinner: Monday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday noon-8 p.m.

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