I will never have the same appreciation for the Rib Room as the friends who recently joined me there do.
As we sat in the historic East State Boulevard restaurant, one fondly recalled how he and his siblings had to put on their Sunday best whenever the family dined there. “It was a big deal,” he said.
The other eats there pretty regularly because it is his father’s favorite restaurant.
I am not a Fort Wayne native, so I don’t have those memories. But what I can appreciate is the fantastic – and much improved since my last visits – food and service.
The Rib Room hasn’t changed much since my friends dined there as kids. To call its atmosphere dated is an understatement. It has that formal 1960s’ appearance with decorative iron scattered about and kitschy, milled, wooden furniture. Cityscape murals were recently added and they were nice, but didn’t make it any less dated.
But there was something new going on in the kitchen and I knew it from my first bite of the signature ribs. They have always been good, but they seemed even better.
They had a little crisp texture on the exterior underneath that tasty tangy sauce. The meat pulled nicely from the bone and was tender without being mushy.
They were worthy of the restaurant’s name.
The dish that impressed me most was an appetizer as retro as the atmosphere – escargot.
They arrived on a special ceramic broiler plate with a little cup for each of the snails, which Christina Filippou, who owns the restaurant with her father, Sam, said are imported from France. They were sizzling in a garlic, wine and chive compound butter with toasted Parmesan breadcrumbs on top, were tender and simply delicious. Not many places still make them and not many places make them as good as the Rib Room.
I had been told by a reader with strong Boston ties that the best lobster in Fort Wayne could be found at the Rib Room, so I had the surf and turf – a cold water tail and an 8-ounce filet mignon.
The tail was perfectly broiled to be golden brown on top, but still tender throughout. A dusting of paprika was another bygone-era detail that would be better disposed of, but the lobster was still worthy of praise. As was the filet, which had a nice sear that formed a crust around the pink, tender and juicy meat inside. It was so juicy it left a puddle on my plate, and its simple salt-and-pepper seasoning was spot-on.
That same simple seasoning let the 16-ounce porterhouse shine, too. It was a big cut of meat and its filet side was literally fork-tender. It was also just as juicy as the filet mignon. The restraint in seasoning also allowed me to enjoy the distinctiveness of the two cuts of beef – the filet robust and iron-rich, and the porterhouse being more fatty and sweet.
The Rib Room has a signature salad – a darn good one, too – in its Greek salad. It was the first place to incorporate diced beets and pineapple chunks into a Greek salad around here and that habit has since been copied by many others. The salad also has a generous amount of feta cheese, green onions, tomatoes, banana peppers and black olives, and is dressed with a zesty mix of oil and vinegar. The salad is great as a meal of its own, and the perfect pairing with a dish.
But the standard house salad that comes gratis with meals was as boring as the Greek was exciting. It was made with just iceberg lettuce, a few tomatoes, a little cabbage and croutons.
One of the Rib Room regulars who joined me did let me in on a house secret that would make the boring side salad at least a little interesting. He ordered French-bleu dressing, a mix of the house French and bleu cheese dressings. It is not listed on the menu, but regulars know they have it. And it was a great combo.
The lemon-rice soup was a nice starter. It was rich, creamy, super lemony and stacked up well among the best Greek lemon-rice soups in town. The spinach Florentine, however, followed the lead of the side salad – boring and forgetful. Its tomato base was bland, and the spinach was either canned or frozen as it was dark and overcooked to mush.
The sandwiches I tried during my lunch visit to The Rib Room were just OK. I added bacon to the bleu burger and that bacon was perfect – not too crisp, not too fatty. There was plenty of melted bleu cheese, but the patty was pretty mediocre and arrived medium-well when I asked for medium-rare. The Rib Room Sandwich was interesting with tartar sauce being the condiment for the ham and Swiss combination. It was OK, but the ham was thinly sliced deli-style meat, which never impresses.
Both of the sides I had with the sandwiches did impress. The fresh-cut fries with the burger were great on their own, some of the best in town, and were even better when I took my server’s suggestion and got them with a little of that rib barbecue sauce for dipping. The potato salad was pretty basic with its yellow, mustard-infused base and crunchy diced onions, but it was impeccable – not too runny, not too sweet and the potatoes were just right.
It was that perfect execution that made my return to the Rib Room so memorable this time around. Sometimes doing things the old way is the right way. But I still think it needs to be pushed more toward 2014, not just in looks, but on the menu.
As much as I loved the old-school escargot, there were no other appetizer offerings I found enticing. And there were no examples of modern, lighter fare anywhere.
The menu’s “For the Lite Appetite” section included a pulled pork sandwich, liver and onions and beer battered cod – not exactly light and not exactly modern.
That Greek salad would be a great place to start building toward the future – toward the present, actually. And if that menu evolves, so will its customer base and its reputation among today’s “foodies” who have written it off.
And then, the fact that I don’t have sentimental feelings about the place won’t matter at all.
Restaurant: Rib Room
Address: 1235 E. State Blvd.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Ribs (5-bone appetizer $8.95; 2/3 -slab dinner $18.50), 1/2 slab basket $13.50), escargot ($9.95), porterhouse ($20.95), surf and turf (market price/$55), Rib Room Sandwich ($6.95), Greek salad ($4.50)
Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).