The gas pumps that once stood in front of the old Gulf station at the corner of Geer and Foster streets were long gone, and the building had stood abandoned for more than a decade when Andy Magowan came across it. Where most people saw an eyesore, Magowan saw just what he was looking for: a home for his new restaurant.
That he was able to see past the rusting gutters and peeling paint to the cottagelike charm of the 1930s-era building isn't surprising, given Magowan's background. The self-taught chef made his bones at Federal and went on to open Piedmont, where he broadened his repertoire with a contemporary Mediterranean-inflected offering. Both restaurants are housed in old commercial buildings rescued from dereliction, and working in them clearly influenced Magowan's choice of a location for Geer Street Garden.
Emphasis on local
His fondness for historic structures is evident in the care with which he refurbished the old gas station, blending reverence for the old (restoring the rooftop railing, which had been absent for half a century) with a nod to the present (highlighting the garage bay doors with a nut brown stain). Inside and out, the walls have been sandblasted to reveal layers of paint and the original brick underneath.
Like those walls, Magowan's menu peels back layer after layer of his culinary history. The seasonally changing offering retains the emphasis on local produce he established at Piedmont, while returning to his culinary roots in unpretentious American-pub-meets-bistro fare reminiscent of Federal.
On the plate, that translates to food whose respect for culinary tradition is a refreshing change of pace. Magowan's deviled eggs would be at home at a family reunion, their creamy, mustard-tinged yolk filling lightly dusted with paprika. Not smoked paprika, mind you, or any other trendy garnish.
Nor will you find any truffle oil on the classic cut skin-on fries, though they do come with your choice of two sauces. Choose from seven options, ranging from gravy to "Srirachanaise," a jazzy blend of hot sauce and mayo.
Throw on toppings
OK, so maybe the chef does throw in an occasional trendy flourish. It's usually optional, though, like the diced avocado you can add to an otherwise authentic Spanish tomato gazpacho.
Or the "what-have-you" that's listed as one of the three topping options for the local pasture-raised burger (the other two are bacon and cheese). The invitation to tailor your burger to your liking is commendable, and nowadays probably necessary. But for my money, the beef is juicy and flavorful enough that I'm happy to take the burger just as it comes: the old-fashioned way, with lettuce and tomato.
Joining the burger under the "Sandwiches & Entrees" heading is an eclectic assortment ranging from fried fish tacos to grilled pimento cheese to Farmhand Foods bratwurst. The barbecued beef short rib is succulent and fork-tender, served with a refreshingly different sauté of green beans, oil-cured olives and heirloom tomatoes. The fried chicken plate with potato salad and local corn on the cob will win you over, too, once you get over your surprise that that chicken is boneless.
I could resist all those temptations, however, as long as the summer succotash - a medley of baby butter beans, sweet corn and tomatoes, topped with tender young okra pods, fried whole in a translucent batter - remains on the list.
Sweets you expect
Desserts are as traditional - and, for the most part, as rewarding - as the savory fare. Banana pudding and a homemade chocolate brownie, topped with salty peanut and caramel sauce, are both winners. Lemon chess pie is good, too, though it would be better without the refrigerator chill.
Kitchen missteps are infrequent across the board, in fact, and generally minor - slightly overcooked fish in the fish tacos, say, or a salmon cake "special" that turns out to be forgettable.
Behind the restaurant, in an area that once was littered with old tires and batteries, Magowan has installed a large, sheltered patio. With a mix of communal picnic tables and smaller tables along a flower-topped brick wall, the space is a convivial setting that fills up quickly whenever the weather is fair. Turns out the food isn't the only reason that Geer Street Garden is a breath of fresh air