The neon RESTAURANT sign on the building at the corner of Dawson and Martin streets has been a downtown Raleigh landmark for decades. For much of its history, the sign marked the entrance to Joe’s Place, an eatery as friendly and unassuming as its name, that flourished from 1979 to 2009.
That predates the memories of many in this rapidly growing city, but for Todd Henderson, the sign brings back fond childhood recollections of meals with his family. They ate at Joe’s often enough that they got to know owner Joe Sciolino, and in Henderson’s words, “I used to harass him when we’d eat there.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Henderson would wind up in the restaurant business, eventually working his way up to general manager positions at Sitti and Sullivan’s Steakhouse. Or that, when he learned last year that the former Joe’s Place had come on the market again, he jumped at the chance to open his first restaurant there.
Naturally, Henderson kept the iconic neon sign for Parkside, which he named for historic Nash Square across the street.
Inside, however, he wanted a warmer, more natural look than the industrial pub decor he’d inherited from Brewmasters Bar & Grill, the most recent tenant. He set a suitably casual stage for the comfort food he wanted to serve. He redecorated the dining room with boards salvaged from a barn in Wake County, stone from the North Carolina mountains, a locally sourced walnut bar and tabletops hewn “all from one huge poplar tree.”
To put that food on the plate, Henderson hired chef Matt Scofield, whose work he had admired when the two worked together at Sitti. Scofield responded with an eclectic offering largely inspired by pub and diner classics – occasionally giving them a contemporary spin, and liberally seasoning the mix with salads, power bowls and other vegetarian options.
Evidence of the chef’s six-year stint at Sitti and its sibling Lebanese restaurant, Neomonde, also can be found sprinkled throughout the menu. Bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese, for one. Another starter features popcorn seasoned with the Middle Eastern spice blend za’atar, an addictive nibbling companion for any of Parkside’s 40-plus draft beers. (The bowl is small, but if your server neglects to inform you, be advised that refills are free.)
Then there’s the cumin in the black-eyed peas, reinforcing their earthy flavor with a subtly smoky note.
“People think there’s got to be some smoked meat in them, but there isn’t,” Henderson says of the black-eyed peas that join collard greens, mac and cheese and a dozen other sides that are available à la carte or as part of Parkside’s meat-and-three offering.
While the meat-and-three at Parkside serves as a tribute to the Southern meat-and-three menu that defined Joe’s Place for many regulars, Parkside takes a few modern liberties with the concept. There’s house-smoked jackfruit vegan “bbq,” for instance, and salmon, and a rib-eye steak whose $24.49 price tag tests the limits of the concept.
That’s about 10 bucks more than the average entree here, including a $14.99 meatloaf that, surprisingly, is not one of the meat-and-three options. Instead it’s listed under the Dinner Plates heading (along with the likes of bone-in pork chop and shrimp and grits), and served with very good skin-on mashed potatoes and – another surprise, given the concept – haricots verts. The thick, onion-studded slab of meatloaf is on the money, too, though anyone expecting the word “gravy” next to “mashed potatoes” on the menu to translate to the diner classic meat gravy is in for yet another a surprise when the dish arrives blanketed in a classic Italian-American sauce sometimes called “tomato gravy” instead. That said, the dish is nonetheless a rewarding option for anyone with a flexible attitude, and encapsulates the neo-nostalgia theme that seems to be the restaurant’s guiding principle.
Fried chicken is something of a meat-and-three curveball, too. Beneath all the nooks and crannies of a thick batter crust, you’ll find a pair of boneless breast cutlets – a respectable rendering, but something of a disappointment for anyone expecting the customary bone-in chicken. On the other hand, one of those crunchy-crusted cutlets is just right between a couple of rosemary- and onion-flecked waffles, in a delightful sandwich served with harissa-spiked maple syrup on the side.
The kitchen does a solid job of putting Parkside’s gastronomic grab bag of a menu on the plate, though misfires occur just often enough to be frustrating. Fish and chips are exemplary one night, and marred by a soft, soggy batter the next. Beef stroganoff, otherwise fine, needs salt. A panko-crusted provolone wheel isn’t cooked long enough to melt the cheese sufficiently, while another starter of fried dill pickle spears, served at the same time, are on point.
Still, the occasional misleading menu description aside, chances of an enjoyable meal – and certainly an adventurous one – are good.
Joe Sciolino occasionally drops by for a meal in the restaurant that now occupies the space where he worked for 30 years. “Now he’s the one who harasses me,” Henderson says. By and large, though, I suspect he likes what he sees.
301 W. Martin St., Raleigh, 984-232-8969
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: casual and contemporary, earth tones and natural textures
Noise level: moderate
Service: friendly, generally attentive
Recommended: bacon-wrapped dates, nachos, chicken and waffle sandwich, meatloaf, vegetable sides
Open: Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
Reservations: not accepted (large parties call ahead)
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking on street.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.