Kid-friendliness, food set Maggie's apart
Kid-friendliness, food set Maggie's apart, by Jim Kershner, Staff writer, April 8, 2005
Yes, I was skeptical when I walked into Maggie's South Hill Grill, a new bistro-style restaurant in the Lincoln Heights area. Two visits later, all skepticism was replaced by … well, the smug contentment that comes from discovering a new joint that is cheap, good and exceptionally kid-friendly. No wonder Maggie's is jammed every lunch and dinner.
My initial skepticism was caused, first, by the place's unusual service style. You stand in line at a counter, menu in hand. Then you order at the cash register, grab a table and wait for dinner to be brought to you. It doesn't exactly scream "fine dining."
Second, the menu is relatively small, relatively routine and filled with the modern grill-bistro's usual suspects (pan-seared ahi, flat iron steak) or with stuff you can make at home (lasagna, mac and cheese).
Both issues turned out to be non-issues. In fact, I grew to admire the counter-service idea. You don't have to wait at a table, drumming your fingers, while a harassed waitress tries to divine whether you are ready to order. You place your order, grab your glass of wine and wait for dinner to arrive, which it does shortly.
As for the menu, who cares whether it is exciting or innovative as long as it's well-prepared?
"It's better to have a few things done well than a huge menu done poorly," said one of our dining companions.
We found plenty of items done right. One of the best sounded the least exciting: the Chicken Pot Pie ($8.95).
This ain't no Swanson's frozen. The bowl arrives wearing a jaunty cocked hat of puff pastry. Crunch your way through that to get to the savory chicken stock, finished with cream and swimming with tender white chicken pieces, green beans, peas and carrots, and aromatic basil and thyme.
"Now, that's what I call comfort food," said my wife, a pot-pie aficionado.
We were also happy with Pan-Seared Ahi Tuna ($14.95), which takes a page from Moxie and crusts the outside of the fish with white-and-black sesame seeds. The wasabi aioli – a fine, creamy contrast of heat and garlic – made a stimulating dipping sauce.
The Thai Chicken Noodles ($10.95) were a peanut-heavy variation on a phad thai dish, loaded with crunchy veggies, tender diced chicken and topped with an eye- opening layer of purple, vinegared cabbage called sunomono.
I would recommend the Maggie's Signature Salad ($5.95) as an accompaniment. To our surprise, it was similar to a Greek salad (it featured two kinds of olives) but with the surprising addition of penne pasta and red wine vinaigrette. If I implied previously that Maggie's menu is not creative, I take it back.
The only dinner disappointment was the Grilled Sliced Pork Loins ($10.95). They were tough, requiring far too much knife-sawing and cud-chewing. Maybe they should switch to pork tenderloin. A noon visit proved that the place is just as popular at lunchtime – and for good reason.
I recommend the Roasted Portobello Sandwich ($7.95), which consists of a giant grilled mushroom cap, topped with a whole roasted Anaheim chile, pepperjack cheese, greens and tomato, on two toasted slices of crunchy Italian bread. The sienna-colored chipotle mayo gave the whole thing plenty of zing. This is just one of several vegetarian dishes.
Another was the Linguine Pomodoro ($8.95), consisting of al dente noodles fragrant with a wine-butter sauce, tomatoes, loads of garlic and fresh strips of sweet basil.
As happy as I was with the food, I came away convinced there is another, more important reason for Maggie's immediate and gratifying popularity. The staff is uncommonly accommodating, especially toward kids.
On our dinner visit, we were accompanied by our little pal Zane, approaching age 2, and his parents. When Zane's dad asked the cashier if the Mini Corn Dogs (one of six children's menu items) could be brought out early, she didn't sigh. She didn't say, "I guess so." She didn't act put upon.
She smiled and said, "Of course," and walked straight to the line cook to ask him to expedite the corn dogs. We saw the same cheerful attitude when young Zane created a small corn-dog shower around the table.
Apparently, this attitude comes from the top down.
"I have little kids, so that is part of my philosophy," said Maggie Watkins, owner. "I saw a big gap here in restaurants with healthy food, that are quick, not terribly expensive and where you could take kids."
Watkins has had a long restaurant career with the Hard Rock Café chain and Wolfgang Puck, to name two. She has helped open 30 restaurants for other people.
When she and her family moved to Spokane from California, she decided to open her own restaurant. She bought this former-Skippers- turned-teriyaki- house in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood. She decorated it nicely with wrought iron wall designs and went to work on a menu heavy on comfort food. It opened around Thanksgiving, and she has been delighted by the response so far.
Maggie's proves one of the adages of the industry: A well-run house is more important than a fancy menu. And it proves another as well: When people feel welcomed, they'll keep coming back.
I'll bet it won't take much for little Zane to drag his parents back.