My favorite way to dine out is family style. From soul food at Mrs. Wilke's Dining Room in Savannah to a massive plate of porterhouse steak for eight at Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn, it is hard to beat the act of communal dining with friends and family.
I enjoy family style because its a reflection of how our family eats at home. Not only do we enjoy making a menu at the beginning of the week and preparing our meals all week long instead of heading out to restaurants - we also love to fill our home with friends for a meal as often as we can. Give me great friends new and old, a comfortable table to accommodate them and enough inspired food to cover it from end to end and I am a happy man.
A group of people, giving their time, sharing stories, raising glasses and experiencing the same flavors at the same time. How could it get better than that?
However it is not just the sense of community that attracts me to family style dining, it is also the sense of ritual and history associated with it. Family style cooking is not cutting edge or grand cuisine, although it can often make what was old new again. Family style cooking takes the food of our family, culture and youth and passes it along for all to share. Simply put, it returns us to our roots, or in the case of a family style restaurant, the roots of the folks preparing the meal.
Unfortunately for the dining public, this style is more of a novelty than an every day reality. In its place we find small print at the bottom of a menu indicating an additional charge to share plates, which seems to perplexing to me in so many ways. Is family style not considered a viable business model or have we as diners given up on the idea of communal eating outside of the home?
Well St. Louis, a drive of less than an hour will find you in the sleepy town of Waterloo, Illinois, the home of Gallagher's, a small gem that serves up a superb pan fried chicken dinner on Sunday afternoons. During the week Gallagher's offers up high end pub food like candied bacon burgers and chops, but on Sunday it forgoes its menu in favor of a family style meal that includes biscuits, pan fried chicken, mashed potatoes with a cream gravy, slow cooked green beans with ham, corn custard and a desert for about thirteen bucks a person.
Now that is a family style / family value I can get behind.
The entrance to Gallagher's is one part gastropub and one part Victorian bed and breakfast, however once you move past the doorway and stairs you find yourself in a handsome bar complete with a server who would look more at home at the Royale than this small community surrounded by farmland on all sides. In fact, the hipster feel of our waiter, covered shoulder to knuckle with amazing sleeves of tattoos on each arm, was an awesome juxtaposition to the overall environment. Old and new. Stuffy and punk rock. I enjoyed the feeling of Gallagher's very much.
We were quickly shown to a table and told that our order was already in, which was perfect because now it was clear that Sunday dinner is done right at Gallagher's - count the heads, fill the glasses with tea and start bringing out the food. In this case this was a basket of pulled from the oven buttermilk biscuits that would get the nodding approval of your dear old grandmother. The only improvement would have been some fresh preserves or better yet honey to drizzle.
A biscuit and tall glass of tea later our waiter appeared again with a tray filled with a whole fried chicken, potatoes, gravy, green beans and corn which we took turns dishing out and passing along for the next person to sample.
Standing out were the green beans, perfectly cooked and mixed with large pieces of smokey ham and the corn custard, which walked the thin line between corn casserole and creamed corn.
Lacking were the mashed potatoes which had a pleasant appearance and texture but went from gummy to gummier throughout the meal. While I enjoyed the cream gravy I thought it could have done with some chicken flavor, ideally from some fat reserved from the pan fried chicken. However, as advertised, it is a cream gravy so I can't complain to much.
However, the highlight of this meal was the pan fried chicken, which happens to be my favorite preparation. Unlike a deep fried chicken, the parts are broken down, seasoned, coated and then placed into a cast iron skillet to cook - first on one side and then the other. The chicken was seasoned correctly with salt playing well with a collection of secret spices - I detected onion, garlic and chili for heat but there is enough hidden in there to keep you guessing thought the meal. The crispness of the crust was everything that a Shake 'n Bake coated chicken should be but always isn't.
I opted for dark meat the first go around, which always stands up better to frying than white meat. Both the wing and thigh I had were crisp on the outside and a heady mix of grease and juice on the inside. Normally I am discouraged by an overly greasy piece of fried chicken because it indicates it was was poorly fried, however I was more than OK with it given this pan fry method. My second helping was part of a large breast, and while it was cooked as well as the thigh and wing, it was dryer than I would have expected. Still tasty, but not nearly as much as with the dark meat.
With plates removed and hands and faces washed our waiter appeared again with was was described as a "light cake" comprised of chocolate and a caramel crunch topping. Truth be told it was as billed - the cake was light and airy allowing the sparse topping to provide the heft to this tasty treat. Excellent ending to a solid meal.
Did I mention that this family style meal was thirteen dollars and under an hour from St. Louis? I for one can't wait to return with friends for another round of family style dining at Gallagher's.