Over the years, I have eaten in some very peculiar restaurants in North Texas: a Mexican restaurant in the back yard of someone’s house, a burger spot the size of most people’s closets, a seafood restaurant whose entrance was in the shape of a whale’s mouth.
Never before, though, have I dined like I dined two weeks ago, in a new restaurant in far north Fort Worth called 54th Street Restaurant & Drafthouse. I realized I was experiencing a major first when I looked up from my burger and fries and noticed, oh, hey, there’s a Formula 500 snowmobile right above me.
To clarify: This restaurant has a snowmobile in it. To the right, a life-size elephant head hangs on the wall, silently roaring above diners munching on chips and queso. To the left, hanging from the ceiling, is an Easy Rider-style motorcycle, painted the colors of the American flag.
In between is a blitzkrieg of illuminated movie posters, beer signs and various knickknacks and whatnots, all related to TV, sports, film and music. It looks like, as a friend observed, a hoarder’s garage blew up.
For many, the fascinating decor is part of the appeal of this Kansas City chain’s first Tarrant County outpost, newly opened in Alliance Town Center. Other diners are drawn in by a menu that touches on burgers, salads, pasta, seafood and other approachable dishes.
The something-for-everyone strategy extends to the seating area: Would you like a comfy booth, to sit on the nice patio or a seat in the separate bar area, where there are no less than a half-dozen flat-screen TVs and dozens of draft and craft beers?
54th Street’s universal appeal translates into waits that, on the weekends, can last up to two hours. Kill time two ways: Look at the stuff on the walls or study the Les Miserables-long menu, 150 items strong.
Gringo dip ($7.49) is as good a place as any to start. The restaurant’s signature appetizer consisted of a generous bowl of queso, made with melted pepper jack cheese, a welcome change of pace from the usual cheddar and American. Brightening it were bits of pico de gallo, buried inside. Accompanying corn tortilla chips were crispy but greasy.
I’ve had better burgers and I’ve had worse, too, than Devil’s Den ($8.99). When bit into, the 6-ounce patty (10-ouncers are available, too) revealed a pink hue, per my medium request, and a deft hand left a smoky sear. Iceberg lettuce was crunchy, tomato slices juicy. Two pieces of bacon were so long, they protruded from the sesame-seed-studded white buns.
All was well until I had a taste of the burger’s two sauces — a smoky barbecue sauce and a tangy ranch dressing. They were good on their own, but the flavors collided in a way that made the burger tough to finish.
Oddly, a third sauce came on the side, a rich blue cheese dressing that never made its way to the burger. Instead, I poured it on the lukewarm and barely seasoned french fries, making them somewhat tolerable.
Better was the chicken madeira ($13.29), the restaurant’s most popular dish. It’s a simple thing, really: a huge chicken breast, 10 ounces, pan-fried, then doused in a mushroom madeira sauce and set on a bed of mashed potatoes.
With its candylike sweetness, the sauce carried the weight of the entire dish, adding flavor where there was little or none. Somewhere in there was supposed to be some Monterey Jack cheese, but I never found it; a pair of asparagus spears were good but seemed as out of place as ketchup on cotton candy.
My favorite thing was the small loaf of honey-wheat bread that accompanied the chicken. Sweet butter came on the side, but I never touched it. The bread was just perfect as it was, steaming hot, even after being on our table for several minutes, with a pleasantly spongy interior and a crusty exterior.
Service was impeccable. To my astonishment, my servers on both occasions I dined there knew the menu inside-out. They described small details — sauces on burgers, textures of bread, the drizzle on desserts (none of which are made in-house). During our first meal, another young server dropped by our table, just to shoot the breeze. This is a well-trained staff. Even hostesses kept their cool while packs of waiting customers hungrily growled.
Edgy chefs with wandering minds continue to push our city’s restaurant scene forward. 54th Street is not interested in being a part of that ilk. This is not a place for food as much as it is a place to eat — and to, of course, gawk.