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First look: The Depot

A bar and grill makeover for Memorial's vintage train station

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"I have no idea!" our waitress, a sweet young thing, exclaimed. We laughed, but we were nonetheless a bit annoyed. Our entrees and appetizers had all arrived at the same time. We'd asked why.

"The only thing I can figure," she guessed, "is that we're kind of slow tonight but the kitchen is still cooking like we are real busy."

Opening a new restaurant, especially one that appears to be instantly popular, has to be something of a nightmare. We were dining at the Depot (904 Memorial Drive, 404-577-1904), a new restaurant located in a railroad depot built in 1900. Whatever else you can say about the restaurant, you have to give major props to the Nightcap Food & Spirits people for rescuing the wonderful structure and restoring it with close attention to its original design.

The interior of the old freight depot is a bit of a shock at first. It feels almost chilly, being a long, cavernous space without the rococo features that typify the average big-budget restaurant these days. But it quickly warms up as you look around and consider the eccentric features, one of which is a large exterior window that looks directly into the kitchen. If you've traveled in Europe, you'll also find yourself reminiscing about dining rooms in rail stations there.

The Depot is as much bar as restaurant and that probably in part explains its enormous appeal. It's in Reynoldstown, near Grant Park and Cabbagetown, and there's nothing like it in the area, with the exception of the Standard. We first visited on a Saturday night and found the place so packed we couldn't even find a parking space. We left and returned on Sunday and, while it was busy, we were seated promptly. We returned again on a Tuesday night and had a 30-minute wait.

The Depot's owners also operate Vickery's, Fontaine's, Highland Tap and several other restaurants. They have all, as long as I can remember, always featured entertaining staffs. I remember when Vickery's, their first restaurant, opened on Crescent Avenue in Midtown in the early '80s. It was one of the wackiest spots in town, especially if you sat at the bar late at night to watch the nightlife.

The food at the Depot is at its best when you eat simply. The restaurant was open only about two weeks when we visited and, besides the usual kinks like food arriving all at once, we encountered some problems with the more complicated dishes during our first visit. A starter of corn cakes topped with Georgia shrimp and arugula salad was pretty obviously the work of an overwhelmed kitchen. The corn cakes were tepid, obviously cooked ahead, the shrimp were room temperature, and the arugula was fine. I could live with all that, but when I discovered wasabi paste smeared on the corn cakes, I lurched. It was such a bizarre, unwelcome taste – not mentioned on the menu – that I seriously wondered if it was a mistake.

On the other hand, a starter of fried green tomatoes with smoked Gouda, tomato compote and baby arugula tasted great.

Entrees were on the mediocre side. My fried chicken breast, served over mashed potatoes with creamed corn, was crispy and moist but far from state-of-the-art. The menu said the jus on the plate was red-eye gravy. Well, maybe. It sure didn't taste like my mother's.

Wayne ordered the "seafood pan roast," featuring shrimp, crawfish, fried oysters and, in the pan's center, a big hunk of bread sopping up the seafood broth. Julienne vegetables and an aioli were in the pan, too. I found the seasoning, supposedly Cajun, harsh, but Wayne enjoyed every bite.

A dessert of house-made New York-style cheesecake was decent, but I would have preferred it without the strawberry sauce.

So we liked the scene but weren't very impressed with the food. I was disappointed but wanted to give it another try a few days later. During our 30-minute wait, we camped at the small oyster bar, where Chris was breaking open raw oysters and chatting amiably. On the bar was a display of three oyster shooters – oysters submerged in booze with different seasonings. Wayne informed Chris he would like to have one, Chris said, "cool," and Wayne grabbed one of the display glasses and gulped it.

Chris and I gasped simultaneously. To the nongluttonous eye, it was obvious these were display drinks not for consumption. "I hope you don't die," Chris said. "I hope you don't get hepatitis," I said. "I hope I don't get sick," Wayne said. So far, he has lived.

We decided this trip to try the less complicated food and we were much happier. Our server recommended the oysters with barbecue butter, garlic, bread crumbs, bacon bits and green onions. The dish was typical Florida oyster-shack fare. It tasted good, but I have never really liked bread crumbs with oysters on the half-shell. The sandy, crunchy bread crumbs always leave me in fear I'm about to break a tooth on some shell.

Our burgers were great, although the Krystalesque red plastic baskets need to go. I picked the blackened burger with blue cheese and red-wine mayo. Although I didn't detect much blackened effect, I was happy. Wayne ordered the "Reynoldstown Burger." It was piled with grilled onions, bacon, pepper-jack cheese and a fried egg. Yes, a fried egg. You might want to carry defibrillation paddles to the restaurant if you plan to order it.

We're glad to have the place in the neighborhood. I hope the kitchen improves the more complicated dishes, but the sandwiches are a safe choice for an excellent experience in the meantime.

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