I was seventeen in 1975, the year that the Vietnam War was fizzling to its overdue finale and I was kicked out of the Vogue Theatre in Indianapolis (along with two high school friends) for sneaking in the back door during a run of "Deep Throat." The manager practically threw us out the front door of the theater at the exact moment my big, fat father happened to be driving by, eating a jelly doughnut. He later told me he almost choked to death at the embarrassing sight. I wasn't embarrassed in the least. I lit up a cigarette and hightailed it over to the closest diner to polish off a cheeseburger, onion rings, a plate of french fries and two slabs of cream pie -- not lunch, mind you, but a predinner "snack." Why not? I barely weighed in at 122 pounds. Let the good times roll!
Twenty-seven years (and seventy pounds) later, I noticed, with some amusement, that the Boulevard Grill menu boasts a logo featuring the phrase "Established in our minds in 1975." The owners -- Steve Greer and Larry Ziegler -- didn't start discussing owning their own restaurant that year (they didn't meet until the 1980s, when both were working for the local Gilbert-Robinson restaurant empire); they just thought the phrase was funny.
"It's a spoof of all those restaurants that lay claim to their opening date," Greer told me. He was 24 years old in 1975 and working at the old Sam Wilson's, a long-defunct Gilbert-Robinson "concept" restaurant that served home-style dinners and had a long, elaborately laden salad bar (back when salad bars were the newest, hippest thing in the culinary trade). Now that it's 2003 and everything old is new again -- including war -- Greer and Ziegler have rolled out their own kind of home-style fare: hickory-smoked barbecued ribs and brisket, chicken-fried steak, fried catfish strips, macaroni and cheese, grilled steaks and big, steaming mounds of mashed potatoes drenched in cream gravy.
There's no salad bar, but there are little tossed salads drenched in the restaurant's own "Red Ranch" dressing: buttermilk ranch and salsa. And that's not the only oddball combination created in the Boulevard Grill kitchen. There's also the pink tartar sauce served with the deep-fried shrimp and catfish. That night's server didn't know why it was pink, unsurprisingly (the servers are young, perpetually smiling, attentive, and totally clueless): "Hmmm, I guess I should ask the owners about that," he said. He didn't, so I did. "It's a little Creole sauce mixed in with the tartar sauce," Greer said. "Gives it a little extra kick."
A little extra kick could be the mantra for this five-month-old restaurant, which opened in a freestanding building that can be seen but not easily accessed, off Old Metcalf south of 123rd Street. To get to the low-slung building, patrons must make a quick right-hand turn at the gas station, then another turn south to a place that's been cursed by at least a half-dozen failed restaurant and bar concepts: a fine-dining bistro called Abigail Rose; an Italian joint known as Bravo's (unrelated to the new chain eatery Bravo Cucina Italiana at Town Center Plaza); a couple of sports bars; and, of course, politically unconnected Stan Glazer's unsuccessful fried-chicken venture, Stanford's Roadhouse.
To remove the bad taste of all that negative karma from the place, Greer and Ziegler are washing it out with ... beer. The restaurant's name is a tribute to the local Boulevard Beer company (available in bottles and on draft here), and the Grill serves up more than twenty imported and domestic varieties of ale. Oh, there's hard liquor, too, but ale seems to be the favored beverage here, not only for sipping but also for eating. The kitchen uses the brew for steaming shrimp and battering onion rings. That's one way to kick up a little business.
My friend Bob, for example, was thrilled to get his own little stainless pot of hot spiced shrimp (which he peeled and ate with gusto) and got slightly woozy from the hint of yeasty beer flavor. Since I get no kick from beer (or, with apologies to Cole Porter, champagne), I preferred the kick from the surprisingly delicious hickory-smoked meats slathered in a sweet and tangy sauce. For less than ten bucks, I got a plate piled with four of the meatiest, most luscious pork ribs I've tasted in a long time and a big stack of tender brisket slices. And -- shades of the 1970s -- Texas toast!
Greer doesn't call his restaurant a barbecue joint, but the smoked meats really are the best things on the menu. There is a grilled veggie salad for the noncarnivores and a "club salad" for lighter-eating diners, but judging from the crowds I've seen chowing down here, most patrons are sticking to the familiar meat-and-potatoes offerings. And like an old hash house, the Boulevard Grill offers choices from a large selection of "side items" with its low-priced dinners. Most dinners include one or two, but it's worth splurging and ordering extras to share: real mashed potatoes, a cheesy baked macaroni that actually tastes of cheddar, a tangy Creole-mustard potato salad, sweet-and-sour cole slaw, and fabulously rich and meaty pit-baked beans.
It makes sense that the place would serve roadhouse-style fare; the Boulevard Grill isn't just off the beaten path, as it were, but even kind of looks like an old roadhouse. (The outdoor patio can get pretty raucous on weekend nights, too.) There are no linens on the tables, the napkins are paper, and the drinks are stiff. Elegant it ain't.
The nonbarbecue fare -- standard roadhouse issue -- isn't exactly memorable. There are the ubiquitous fried chicken tenders, burgers, and a Kansas City strip. Bob was intrigued enough to order something called Z's smoked and sliced filet of beef, which is described on the menu like this: "Exciting! Ask your server for details." Our server, of course, had no idea what those mysterious details were, so I once again asked Greer, who gives a pretty good song and dance about the mysterious cut of beef -- a teres major roast (also known as a shoulder tender roast) -- which Ziegler smokes until it's as pinky-red as a hunk of Spam, then slices into tender medallions. It wasn't served very hot, but Bob liked the unusual taste. I thought it tasted like Spam.
That was the night I got daring and sampled an appetizer platter called the Pier on the Boulevard: Mississippi-style catfish strips, cold spiced shrimp and deep-fried shrimp. The cornmeal-breaded catfish was so salty that I wondered whether it had been plucked from the Dead Sea. All the pink tartar sauce on the planet couldn't have made it edible. The fried shrimp were hot and crunchy, and the cold shrimp were plump and tasty. But it says volumes that the best part of that particular meal was a side order of macaroni and cheese.
On my next visit, I stuck with barbecued ribs and encouraged my friend Carol to do the same. The petite Carol ordered a meal called the lighter rib plate and nibbled daintily on two of the four oversized ribs in front of her.
"I'll take the rest home and get a couple more meals out of the deal," she said.
No one can say that any of the portions here are petite -- nor are many of the patrons, myself included. I got so full on each of my visits, in fact, that I never ordered dessert, despite the flowery description that the "daily selection was based on the artistic abilities of our pastry chef." I can't attest to the artistic ability of the pastry chef, because -- ha! ha! -- there isn't one!
"We kind of put that line on the menu as a little joke," confessed Ziegler.
Greer told me that most of the Boulevard's desserts are made outside the restaurant, including Cheesecake Factory cheesecake.
"But most of our customers only order ice cream," Greer said. "We serve Haagen-Dazs."
Ah, yes, the hard-to-pronounce "gourmet" ice cream of my youth. Wait a minute! Are you sure this isn't 1975?