“Excuse me. Oops, I’m sorry. I’ll squeeze in over here. Oh! Didn’t mean to bump you. I just, um, need to put my name down. Is there a hostess? ... Yessir, I do, in fact, realize my waiting spot places my rear squarely in your table’s eye line.”
And so goes the beginning of a typical dinner at Dot’s Back Inn, the North Side diner that’s been drawing crowds in love with its go-with-the-flow attitude for more than 20 years.
If you’ve never heard of Dot’s or if, like me, you haven’t been in a few years, I suggest you make a trip up Hermitage Road because some rather notable cooking is coming out of its cramped little kitchen.
I first wrote about Dot’s in 2005, when owner Cookie Giannini, who named the place after her aunt, a hard-working waitress, was running the show. I loved how the cozy spot’s black-and-white photos, American flags, Christmas lights and kitschy signs gave it an awesome vibe.
A couple of years later, Giannini sold the restaurant to Jimmy Tsamouras, a Culinary Institute of America grad with plenty of restaurant experience, under one condition: “Don’t change the place.”
Under Tsamouras, Dot’s is still as genuine and full of personality as ever, but the food has been taken up several notches. The menu still features a long list of Heroic Burgers, First Class Proteins (mostly omelets served all day) and Square Meals, such as the much-loved Chicken MacArthur ($11.95) with pasta, artichokes, garlic and feta. But Tsamouras has several seafood-centric specials that belie Dot’s classic diner casualness.
Ordering oysters and even rockfish at a place where the entire dining room can erupt into a buzzed rendition of The Beatles’ birthday song at a moment’s notice might seem like a recipe for disaster, but the kitchen staff at Dot’s can grill a swordfish as perfectly as it can fry up some bacon.
Tired of being bumped around like pinballs as servers zigzagged through the waiting crowd, my friend and I snagged two barstools nanoseconds after they were vacated. After a no-nonsense bartender filled my wine glass to the very rim, we decided that eating at the bar was a pretty good idea.
At the very least, it gave us prime seats for watching the grill cook roll out an assembly line of masterfully fried eggs while other line cooks prepped everything from tuna melts ($6.25) to chicken marsala ($12.95).
We decided to start with the Mediterranean pie ($6.75) and a special of mahi-mahi bites ($7.95). A round, spongy pita was topped with a thick layer of garlic-laden pesto, crumbled feta and chunks of tomato. It was so flavorful I had trouble getting rid of my garlic breath the next day.
Served with zingy tartar sauce and lemon wedges, the lightly breaded cubes of mahi-mahi were seasoned just enough so that the clean flavor of the fish was enhanced, not erased.
Dot’s serves 21 burgers as well as a top-your-own option, so I had to try the Double Swine burger ($8.25). The addition of a salty slice of Smithfield ham took the greasy, nicely singed patty to a level that the bacon alone couldn’t achieve. Melted Swiss, lettuce, tomato and a toasted wheat bun made this a burger I won’t soon forget.
A grilled swordfish special ($13.95) left a similarly blissful impression. The meaty, delicately seasoned fish was a perfect base for the garlicky topping of sun-dried tomato-caper relish. Collards on the side had the delicious tang that can only come from the glory that is pork.
Even though Guy Fieri sang its praises on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” a few years back, Dot’s doesn’t need anyone, myself included, telling you it’s good. Tsamouras’ skill in the kitchen and the sassiness of the servers can turn any first-timer into a regular.
Freelance writer and graphic designer Dana Craig has been reviewing restaurants for The Times-Dispatch since 2004. The Times-Dispatch pays for the meals on her unannounced visits to restaurants. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at http://twitter.com/danacraigrtd.