Almost everything about Waddell's Neighborhood Pub and Grille rubbed me the wrong way the first time I visited. It bugged me that they called themselves a "Neighborhood Pub and Grille." Any establishment that has to print that on their menu to prove it obviously isn't one. Especially when it's located in a strip mall on busy Regal Street, and the only nearby "neighborhood" is the mass of apartment complexes across the fake pond from the back patio.
That pseudo-pretentious "e" on the end of "grille" didn't help, either. But that "e" was also indicative of a more troublesome identity crisis inside. It's clearly a beer place. There are 20 taps here, and about 50 more beers in bottles behind the bars. But they're also going, more specifically, for an Irish beer bar, or at least a U.K. beer bar. The three owners hail from three separate U.K. nations. Beer signs for Smithwick's, Guinness and Newcastle adorn the walls in the long, narrow space, with those ales featured prominently at the taps. The menu included Scotch eggs, shepherd's pie and "Irish nachos."
At the same time, though, there's a giant inflatable Corona bottle over the entryway. And all the TVs are showing sports. And the menu is riddled with trivia about the restaurant's namesake, Rube Waddell, an eccentric, alcoholic (and possibly mentally disabled) pitcher from the turn of the 20th century.
So is it an Irish bar? A baseball bar? Just a sports bar? Hard to say. But it got worse than the motif, which, although confusing, was still pleasant. They were out of the shepherd's pie and the Scotch egg. We ordered pints, and they smelled like dish rags. We ordered appetizers, and they tasted like... nothing. The chicken wings were anything but Buffalo-style, bathed in a bland, iridescent, mustardy sauce. The cheese sticks -- which, like the chicken strips, were very lightly, crisply breaded -- quickly ran out of cheese, turning into empty cartridges of fried dough. Everywhere -- on the menus, on the backs of servers' shirts -- we saw advertisements for the bar's house-blended "Squirrelly Beaver" seasonings, but there was no evidence that a speck of it had dusted our food, and none was offered to us.
We thought maybe it was just the appetizers, which can often be unremarkable in a pub setting. But the entreees were scarcely better. The salmon fillet we ordered, though covered in a succulent-looking huckleberry sauce, was dry and bland. (The accompanying mashed potatoes were quite good.) The ribeye steak ($19) -- though cooked, at my preference, to a pleasant pink -- was gummy and flavorless and so riddled with fat that only about half of the cut was edible.
At last, dessert. That was the high point of the evening. We had a very nice chocolate mousse cake with whipped cream and a raspberry sauce. But it was a rare highlight in a $75 meal.
We returned to the office the next day and pondered writing a terrible review, but we started to wonder if Waddell's had simply had a bad night. After all, they've only been open since January. And it was Bloomsday weekend.
We went back two weeks later. It was night and day. Same "grille," same location, same fake pond. But this time, the food was delicious. The menu had changed somewhat. Gone were the Scotch egg and the heavy stews, replaced by light salads and summer brats and something called a "wood wrap." I had to have it.
Waddell's serves two variations on the wood wrap: steak and chicken. In each, the meat is spiced and marinated while nearly paper-thin pieces of wood (hickory for the former, cherry for the latter) are soaked in water. The meat is then cooked inside the wood, making it moist and chewy and permeated with wood smoke. What arrives at the table looks something like a tamale. But, though it's called a wrap, it's not a hand food. Unfurl the thing, fork the meat and dip it into the sauces: a delicious teriyaki for the steak, a nice sesame vinaigrette for the chicken. Very impressive. Elsewhere on the menu, they add onions and peppers and call it a fajita. We also had the Irish nachos -- basically potato skins filled with cheese, sour cream and bacon bits. They're dense, heavy in the palm. Like hand grenades. They were good at the table and even better out of the fridge the next day. And we tried the "That's a Tasty Burger," which should be called "That's a Spicy Burger" -- one-third of a pound of beef sandwiched with jalapenos, pepper jack cheese and a hell of a lot of that mysterious Squirrelly Beaver seasoning. The flavor was explosive. The taste lingered and grew.
Was this the same Waddell's?
Owner Michael Noble says the basic approach to the menu hasn't changed, though he acknowledges the new, more weather-appropriate cuisine and says the wood wraps have, so far, been a hit with customers -- including a group of regulars he says are beginning to call Waddell's home. "It's great to see as a restaurant owner," he says. "You know you're doing something right when you got regulars coming back."
I won't be a regular at Waddell's. But despite the awful first visit, I'll be back for a Tasty Burger and a steak wrap.
Waddell's • 4318 S. Regal St. • Open Tue-Sun 11 am-close; Mon 4 pm-close • Call 443-6500.