Cantrell — who also operates Cheesehead Sandwiches downtown — turned the storefront space formerly occupied by the Addis Aba Ethiopian Café into a cozy, oddball dining room with faux stone-block walls. It's a bit of King Tutankhamen's tomb, shaken together with a small-town sports bar and populated with characters straight out of Central Casting. During one of my visits, on a sweltering Tuesday night, every chair at the bar was taken by someone who looked vaguely familiar. Not familiar from my real life, but rather from some half-forgotten movie or sitcom episode. A pretty female bartender held court to a chubby older man; a chain-smoking middle-aged woman with a throaty laugh; a gone-to-seed former jock swilling beer; a nubile young brunette in a flirty satin dress; and a skinny, nerdy guy in glasses and a polyester shirt buttoned to the collar. And they all seemed to know one another, as if this chummy little bar were their regular watering hole.
"How long has this restaurant been here?" asked my friend Patrick, staring at the motley crew from our table on the other side of the room.
A couple of months, I told him. Patrick looked stunned: "This bar crowd looks as if they've been coming here for years. Like they're part of the décor."
Since there's not much in the way of décor — if you don't count the pretend stone walls, the built-in rotisserie oven, the uncloaked tables and the fringed drum light fixtures — the regulars and the attractive young servers give the Spitfire Grill a feeling of vitality and fun. Another friend, less charmed by the place than I was, calls it "the weirdest restaurant on 39th Street," which is, in my opinion, a rather sweeping statement. She clearly wasn't thinking of the far more eccentric Bell Street Mama's across the street or the late, lamented Nichols Lunch when she moved the Spitfire Grill to the top of her weirdo list. It doesn't even earn a mention on my list of weird restaurants, but that's an idea for another story.
It says something about the success of Cantrell's concept that I took several of my most critical dining companions with me on each of my four visits to the restaurant, including the unapologetically snooty Bill, and they all liked it — even Bill, who insisted the interior décor reminded him of one of the cheap Saturday-morning serials he watched as a kid at the old Gladstone Theatre. Something with a mad scientist, I think.
The restaurant has a few good things going for it, thanks mostly to the talents of chef Brian Curry, the mad scientist in the tiny kitchen who puts out some surprisingly tasty meals and a terrific Sunday-morning brunch. Curry's menu isn't elaborate. It's just good, solid bistro fare: an invigorating French onion soup, organic roasted chicken stuffed with rosemary and thyme, steamed mussels, and something called "cheese fondue with potato gnocchi" — it's not served in a festive little pot, but it's definitely gooey with molten cheeses.