Bites at the Bar

The Elbow Room's Friday night fish fry excels--but the rest of the food does not

If someone were to ask me, face to face, if I would recommend the Elbow Room, an old-time bar in midtown, I'd have to say ... maybe.

Our first visit was on a Friday night for the highly recommended fish fry. With unbeatable prices ($4.95 for the all-you-can-eat Alaskan pollack basket and $5.95 for the shrimp/fish combo basket), the Elbow Room attracts a large and mixed crowd. The baskets are the only items served on Fridays, but with cold beer, snappy service and mostly homemade condiments, this is a deal and a half.

In spite of the crowd, we found a table for two next to a couple who called the Elbow Room their home away from home. They filled us in on the food--there are specials every night of the week, all at killer prices.

We ordered a couple of beers, the combo basket for John and the fish basket for me. Our neighbors told us that this was the best way to go, since you can't order more of the combo basket, but the owners don't mind if the all-you-can-eat is shared.

Because the Elbow Room is a bar that serves food and fits under the city ordinance allowing smoking in an establishment that earns more than 50 percent from spirits, smoking is allowed. It's kind of weird to watch people chain smoke while tablemates are eating, but that's the way it is. If you're sensitive to smoke, avoid a visit. Also, if you're looking for fancy, this isn't your type of place. Décor is all-American-bar, complete with signs supporting the troops and country music on the jukebox. There are two rooms, with maybe a total of 20 tables in all, in addition to the bar. Casual to the max!

We chatted more with our neighbors, who seemed to know quite a few of the people who walked through the door. Their company added to the ambiance and made the short wait for the food more pleasant.

The fish was sizzling hot, as were the fries served along with it. The crispy coating--the owner's secret beer-batter recipe--kept the fish moist and tender. This was different than the beer batter I'm used to, and much better, because it didn't drown out the fish. With the creamy homemade tartar sauce, this fish basket compared easily to any of those served back in the Great Lakes area, where the Friday-night the fish fry is legendary.

John's shrimp basket was also terrific. We discovered the breading isn't the same as the housemade fish stuff, but still, the shrimp were crispy and hot. A unique touch was the seafood sauce. Instead of ketchup as a base, the sauce definitely had an undertone of barbecue sauce, along with the horseradish. Both baskets were served with the housemade cole slaw. It had to be good, because neither of us much likes slaw, but we both polished off most of it.

We left with thoughts of returning another Friday, just for the sheer fun of it.

Visit two was a different story. That night, the Elbow Room was certainly more of a bar than a restaurant. Most of the tables were filled with folks taking advantage of the chicken special--a three-piece dinner with the trimmings for 95 cents. If you want all white meat, it's bumped up to $1.95 (my choice for the evening). Despite the inexpensive eats, there were a fair number of patrons just drinking.

While we were waiting, there was an altercation in the other room. There was some yelling, then a little bit of chair-rustling. One of the workers told a woman, "Out the door! Out the door!" The brouhaha rattled some of the senior crowd, but soon, things settled down to a buzz.

Meanwhile, we waited for a server. And waited. And waited. By this time, other folks who were waiting to pay gave up and paid their bill at the bar.

Normally, I probably would've left. Instead, I tracked down one of the servers and asked for help. It was another five minutes before she came by, apologizing and making excuses that she didn't see us. She also had a little trouble taking our order, not knowing what kinds of beers they had in bottles, writing down dark meat when I'd asked for white, and so on. John went with the New York steak nuggets basket ($4.95), which she was able to handle without any problems.

My chicken dinner was disappointing. After the wonderful fish, I'd hoped that same level of juicy, tender and crispy would be found in the chicken. The half boneless breast almost succeeded, but the two wings were underdone--a mortal sin with the Connelly clan. Sides included mashed potatoes and gravy, a roll and applesauce, none of which I'd order again.

John's steak nuggets were tough and chewy, and that's about all that can be said about his dinner.

We left a bit disheartened, but we rationalized the whole evening by acknowledging that the Elbow Room is a bar, pure and simple. It's kind of a neat bar, actually, although a bit rough around the edges. In these days of 100-plus degrees, the Elbow Room might be a great place for a couple of cold brews after a hard day's work.

But for dinner, I'd stick with the Friday-night fish fry. It's good food and a good deal, and the crowd it attracts (seniors, small families and the like) isn't likely to act up. Another caveat--our dining neighbors told us that during snowbird season, there's a line out the door most Friday nights.

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