The story of the Woodswether Café should be as simple as a plate of eggs and bacon. But a restaurant is always more complicated than that.
Woodswether started life in the 1990s as a modest West Bottoms diner, popular with truck drivers and blue-collar workers. Because it was stationed on curvy, hard-to-find Woodswether Road, it was painted with an outrageous mural depicting rabid cabbages, eggs with teeth and wacky rabbits. Jerry Naster, a former meat cutter at Snyder's Supermarket, ran the place then (which is why it used to be known as Jerry's Woodswether Café), and he learned to cook on the job.
"When I bought the restaurant," he says, "I didn't even know how to boil an egg. Two of my waitresses had to show me how to cook eggs. But I just kept on cooking and learned how to make all kinds of things."
In 2005, Naster moved his restaurant off Woodswether Road, into a bigger building at 1414 West Ninth Street. Two years later, depressed about his wife's death, Naster impulsively sold the place. (In 2010, he opened the compact Jerry's Café at State Line and 103rd Street). John Cuezze and his wife, Joanne, operated the Woodswether Café until this past summer, when they sold it to Mark Anderson (who kept the menu and added a letter to the name to make it the Woodsweather Café).
Here's where the eggs in the tale get scrambled. Before selling the not-quite-original Woodswether, Cuezze and Tony Civella opened another restaurant and decided to call it Woodsweather II.
Well, why not? It's in the Northland, many miles from Woodswether Road, and it occupies a building once home to a gay bar called Wetherbee's. And for the record, the new Woodsweather II is considerably more elaborate than its various relatives. There's a glossy concrete floor, a sleek lounge area with a dance floor, and a dining room that manages to be both glitzy and utilitarian at once. If the old Woodswether was as familiar as an old shoe, this version — which sure doesn't look like much from the outside — is as flashy inside as a rhinestone-encrusted Ferragamo pump.
The menu is proudly unfancy. The old Woodswether in the Bottoms was famous for its hearty breakfasts, hefty hamburgers and home-style fare, and this new incarnation hasn't made that many culinary changes. One of them, however, is significant: Woodsweather II is closed Sundays. (Cuezze is thinking of adding Sunday breakfast in the future. "This location is surrounded by churches," he says.)
The main reason that Woodsweather II isn't yet open Sundays is that it has become a raucous Saturday-night club scene. (The bar stays open until 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.) A band called Uncle Jam was rocking the dining room two weeks ago as the waitresses, serving platters of fried catfish and deep-fried shrimp a couple of hours earlier, delivered cucumber gimlets and "Electric Lemonade" cocktails to the post-supper crowd.
"We've had people ask us to serve breakfast at last call," Cuezze says, "but that's too much pressure on our staff right now."
In the cold light of day, Woodsweather II reverts to being an old-fashioned diner, in the best sense of that word. The fries here are hand-cut, the slightly sweet Sicilian sugo is simmered in the kitchen, and even the salad dressings are made in-house (except for the honey-mustard because, a waitress explained to me, "mostly kids order it with their fried chicken fingers so it has be more about the honey than the mustard"). Monday and Saturday nights, Tony Civella's attractive sister Fanny Jo, who is also a server here, makes the fried chicken from an old family recipe. And there's a Thursday pasta special (with meatballs or a chubby link of Scimeca's sausage): a pound of spaghetti or penne piled on a platter and smothered in that robust red sauce.
Chef Jesse Vega, an almost iconic local cook, oversees the kitchen, making real mashed potatoes every day and turning, through clever sleight of hand, inexpensive steaks into damn good dinners — a 10-ounce rib-eye here is $14 and includes a spud and a side dish. At that price, the meat doesn't sit tall on the plate, but it's very satisfying. (The soothing sheen of melted Chianti butter helps.)
Thickness here is reserved for the half-pound cheeseburger transplanted from the West Bottoms. A monster alive and well in the Northland, it's topped with melted pepper jack and grilled onions and served on Texas toast. The other intact transfer is the Reuben, one of the best such sandwiches in the city, piled high with tender corned beef, a jumble of tart sauerkraut and a dollop of house-made Thousand Island dressing.
I'm not big on leftovers, but I have yet to leave this restaurant without a carryout container. The spaghetti on the plate of chicken Romano — Cuezze's version of chicken parmesan, with a fried chicken patty drenched in red sauce and melted cheese — seemed to multiply after each bite. I swear I had more pasta at the end of the meal than I did at the beginning. (The place isn't officially an Italian restaurant, but you wouldn't know that with its specials, including a bow-tie pasta blanketed in a ridiculously rich cream sauce with both gorgonzola and parmesan.)
Leftovers run out, though, and I'm glad I live far enough away to avoid impulsive drives northward to indulge my craving for uncouth food combinations. I can't think of another place in town where I could take on a heap of all-you-can-eat boiled and spiced shrimp, a mess of fried jalapeño peppers, a cherry malt and a chocolate brownie a la mode. And that's good. One Woodsweather II is all I can handle — too too much, mostly in a good way.