According to the Sibley Field Guide to Birds, the bobwhite is a short, squat member of the quail family, native to the Southeastern United States. With feathers in muted shades of red, brown, and rufous, this understated creature’s most prominent feature is the male’s talent for endless self-promotion, incessantly chirping, “Bob white, bob white, bob white.”
And Bobwhite is also the moniker of the city’s latest attempt to re-create a real Southern-style diner, the kind you still find in places like Edisto, South Carolina, and McDonough, Georgia, where the so-called New Southern Cooking—unfrying the cuisine’s standards and piling on nouvelle ingredients—has had little impact. Bobwhite Lunch and Supper Counter is the full name, an attempt to completely describe a rather unusual operation. The barely decorated room does indeed include a lunch counter, in addition to raised tables and some shelf seating in windows overlooking Avenue C. But, unlike a real Southern lunch counter, there’s no waitress calling you “Honey” and refilling your coffee cup. Rather, you order at a computer station up front, the items are relayed to the kitchen, and the chef himself is likely to deliver the food to your table.
The bill of fare is mercifully short, and most of the food memorably good. It allowed me, for the first time in a while, to actually eat everything on the menu, some things twice. In fact, there are only two real entrées: fried chicken and fried catfish. The first consists of a half-bird cut in three pieces, dredged in flour, and cooked in the traditional Southern manner. No buttermilk batter and no brining—which often gives hipster fried chicken the texture of marshmallows—though Bobwhite’s bird has been marinated in sweet tea, a whimsical touch that adds a slight sweetness but little else.
Even more commendable is the catfish. With plenty of cornmeal in the crust, each fillet crackles like the sound of a car fender crumpling on a brick wall. The flesh tastes engagingly like the mud in the bottom of a clear-running stream. Is the fish wild-caught? Probably not, but that flavor is still there. Both dinners ($11.50 and $12, respectively) come with sides: in the first case with a salad and an exemplary, though none too large, biscuit; in the second, with potato salad and cole slaw, which the menu calls remoulade, but tastes more like pink tartar sauce.
But that’s not the end of the road, menu-wise. That thoroughfare narrows and goes further into the forest with a long list of sandwiches ($6 to $9.50), which are entirely within the canon of a Southern diner, yet never permitted to dominate the menu in this way. What is Bobwhite’s ploy? To wimp out on a real menu, or to make you eat sandwiches for dinner? It might be the latter, because these bread-bounded assemblages are made to seem like small celebrations, served with zippy down-home relishes, and certainly curtailing the number of calories you’d be getting in the usual dinner pig-out. Thanks Bobwhite. Also salubriously, a feed at Bobwhite doesn’t require you to sit still for two or three hours.
The chicken breast sandwich (fried, grilled, or roasted) comes with a side salad on a round roll heaped with sweet pickles, while the catfish (fried or grilled) arrives with the same salad and a zesty remoulade, providing an additional flavor wallop. The best sandwich, though, is made with a boneless pork chop heaped with the sweet and mustardy relish called chowchow, a real Southern staple. Naturally, there’s a pimento cheese sandwich, deploying sharp cheddar instead of American or Velveeta—which might be a mistake.
There are extra sides for sale, too, including a rarely available Brunswick stew—usually the staple of Low Country barbecues—made with chicken instead of pork, but entirely satisfactory nonetheless. Another departure from the lunch counter mode is a short list of great Italian wines by the glass and a couple of good beers. Yes, you are allowed to have a drink with your dinner sandwich. But the real reason for eating a sandwich might be so you can implore your waistline to let you order dessert, of which two are available.
Served in a mason jar, the banana pudding tastes fine but is a little gritty. The so-called pecan-pie bread pudding ($4) might be the menu’s greatest triumph, a boxcar of cakey pudding rife with nuts and sluiced with a salty caramel sauce. You’ll wolf down the first serving, then pray your Southern grandma, risen from the grave, calls from the kitchen to offer you another. Happy Halloween!