The idea behind this series is fairly simple: My girlfriend and I will go out to eat at a Chattanooga-area restaurant and then describe our dining experience there. Keep in mind that this is not a food review per se, but instead an attempt to relate to readers our single, one-time experience at a restaurant. It just is what it is, as they say. There will also be pictures. Lots of pictures.
I am a 30-year-old voracious eater of anything weird, while my girlfriend, age 24, is the complete opposite. This makes dining for us a strange affair. I enjoy a tremendous amount of flavor and complexity, but her M.O. is "simple, no frills." These dining adventures will test both of us at various restaurants around Chattanooga. After an almost incessant urging from several friends and readers, we decided to dine at St. Elmo’s 1885 Grill.
Nooga.com intern Emmett Gienapp visited 1885 shortly after it opened in June. He profiled the restaurant and the effort of owners Miguel and Leslie Morales to bring a little South Carolina coastal flair to Southern food. Dustin Choate of Tremont Tavern is also a business partner. Located in the former location of Blacksmith’s in St. Elmo, the seating is plentiful both inside and out. 1885 Grill also shares space (and restrooms) with Pasha Coffee and Tea, making for a very large, open and inviting space. Lauren, a photographer, appreciated the canvas photographs on the walls. 1885 Grill feels more like an honest representation of a public house than, well, Public House. On this Wednesday, the bar was packed with groups of young professionals while, at the same time, the table next to ours was filled with octogenarians, all using walkers and canes to exit the building. The clientele is, I’m sure, the across-the-board demographic owners intended when they opened the restaurant. Even Chris Dortch (of the Mise En Scenesters Film Club) was there. This place is a meeting of both creatives and wealthy mountain people. I like it.
Michael, endearingly referred to on our receipt as "Chops" because of his presidential facial hair, was one of the best servers we have ever had at a restaurant in Chattanooga. He wasn’t just nice—important criteria for a server—he was talented. The guy opened our straws for us. He brought me a complimentary tasting of the gumbo special, and he patiently addressed my questions even though he had several other tables that required his immediate questions. Our table was a tiny two-top in the corner. We had a great view of the action. The authentic experience for 1885 Grill would probably be had on the patio. It was full, though, and we didn’t want to wait. Inside, Lauren noticed the chair runner along the wall didn’t line up with the chairs. She’s an observant fox.
Lauren is not a fan of shellfish, which can pose a problem at a "coastal-themed" restaurant. For an appetizer, we chose the cheese empanadas sans beef. Other appetizers include fried green tomatoes (a special on this night), crab cakes, seared scallops and hummus. We also ordered some cocktails from the extensive drink menu. Lauren had "The Lookout," which featured housemade blackberry vodka, Cointreau, freshly squeezed lemon and a sugar rim. I was feeling a bit too on the rails, so I chose the "Derailed," which is sort of a mint julep riff involving Chattanooga Whiskey, triple sec, mint-infused simple syrup and lemon juice. Both of our drinks were mixed perfectly and worth every penny. If I had the stamina, I’d like to try all the cocktails in one sitting. I don’t, however. The empanadas were a simple fried pastry with cheese. The highlight was the tasty bed of rice they were served on. You get two with an order.
Lauren has an intense dislike for shellfish, but she loves fish. Go figure. She’s cute, though, so I put up with it. I ordered the special of the night, an onion burger with slow-cooked onions (duh) and barbecue sauce. Chops insisted that I order the famous hushpuppies with my burger, and I could’ve kissed him on the mouth for the suggestion. Lauren gravitated like gravity toward the salmon, a 6-ounce portion served grilled with a lemon compound butter. Predictably, she ordered mac and cheese and a side of grilled vegetables (zucchini and mushrooms). Our food arrived in a flash and we dug in. Lauren’s salmon melted in her mouth like the butter it was cooked with. Lauren called the baked mac and cheese her "favorite in the city." She’s had a lot of mac and cheese, folks. This is a bold statement. My burger was good, but it wasn’t special. In retrospect, I should’ve ordered one of the many dishes my friends have told me to order: shrimp and grits, the crab cake sandwich or the "country Cuban," to name a few. 1885 Grill is not a "burger" restaurant, but I was swayed by the National Cheeseburger Day festivities, which was a mistake. Granted, it was still a delicious burger, but I wish I had ordered a seafood dish. My fault. It just means I have to make a return visit.
Two options were given for dessert: a pumpkin spice cheesecake and homemade banana pudding. Lauren and I never decline a banana pudding, out of respect for our ancestors. The serving was manageable, which is an often-overlooked detail important to desserts. We’d just eaten a huge meal, and we only needed a few bites to satisfy our craving for something sweet. This banana pudding was done right: vanilla pudding (not banana-flavored pudding) with large chunks of banana and a decent, pie-like crust. The serving also came with a dollop of whipped cream, which tasted homemade. A few bites and were we done.
Would we go back?
The best way to appreciate 1885 Grill would be, I think, with a group of friends and empty stomachs. The restaurant invites socializing and camaraderie among different groups of people. The focus is on quality and service, which results in an exemplary model for other restaurants in Chattanooga. Serious kudos are in order for the staff of 1885 Grill. We were treated unbelievably well and made to feel right at home. I would imagine 1885 Grill will be a gathering place for Chattanoogans for years to come, but I can also envision the line at the front door getting longer as word gets out. Don’t miss out on this one, folks.
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