It was 10 years ago almost to the day that I first discovered Phil Davis and his trademark chicken and waffles. I had been on the food beat for all of one month when I paid a visit to Phil the Fire, then a "pop-up" Sunday brunch that took place in a rented church basement. I still can recall the thrill of it all: the unconventional setting, the festive atmosphere, the peculiar but delicious food. The review practically wrote itself.
A decade later, pop-up restaurants are ubiquitous, diners can order chicken and waffles at IHOP, and Phil the Fire is in a former suburban Houlihan's. How times have changed.
My first visit to the new Phil the Fire started off on a sour note. Arriving without a reservation, we were told by the hostess that it would be about a 10-minute wait. (This, despite plenty of obviously unoccupied tables.) Would we like to wait in the bar, she wondered? No, we would not, and just like that a table opened up before us. It all felt like a cheap ploy to get us to buy a round of drinks.
Unlike Phil's former teeming, bustling, and fun Shaker Square restaurant — the 40-seater he opened on the heels of his successful church brunches — the new locale seats 280 in chain restaurant-style comfort. Multiple rooms, including a large bar outfitted with flat-screens, means that no single space ever feels particularly busy or festive.
The good news is that the chicken and waffles haven't changed a bit. Crunchy, salty, and chin-drippingly juicy fried chicken married with fluffy, spice-scented waffles and doused in sweet maple syrup and tangy hot sauce creates a symphony of taste and texture. Diners can choose a leg and thigh ($14), a breast and wing ($17), or all four ($20).
The entrée menu is pretty slim, containing just the chicken and waffles, fried or grilled fish, and rotisserie chicken. On the day we were there, the kitchen ran out of rotisserie chicken at lunchtime and didn't bother to make any for dinner service.
Side dishes are included only with the rotisserie chicken and seafood dinners. That means chicken and waffle fans are stuck footing the bill for overpriced sides like wonderful collard greens, floppy sweet potato fries, fluffy cheese grits, and firm, nutty black-eyed peas. Mac and cheese, Phil's number-one seller, was all gone before we even showed up.
Our fried green tomatoes went largely untouched, owing to a greasy exterior and mushy middle. Fried catfish nuggets, in contrast, arrived delightfully crisp and grease-free. Soul Rolls — tasty fried snacks filled with beans, cheese, and collards — are like Low Country egg rolls.
At $19.95, Sunday brunch is an all-you-can-eat affair, with chafing dishes filled with scrambled eggs, hash browns without a hint of "brown," two kinds of grits, overly saucy mac and cheese, collards, beans, and an oft-abandoned turkey carving station. The other side of the buffet boasts fried chicken, fried catfish, and made-to-order waffles — or so I thought, until the man behind the griddles directed me to a chafing pan containing pre-made waffles.
A pastry table is set up in another room. It's a self-serve affair with peach cobbler, red velvet cake, and a stack of incongruous plastic plates. The dining room tables lacked salt and pepper shakers and hot sauce — three essentials that left us searching (and waiting) for a resolution.
While friendly and well-meaning, service could use some polish. Few staffers seemed to experience the same level of urgency as we did — in terms of refilling water glasses, replacing silverware that was removed along with dirty buffet plates, and delivering and retrieving the check.
I found it odd — troubling, really — that Phil Davis, a man blessed with a rare second chance at his restaurant dream, was conspicuously absent during both visits. It was only in the parking lot on my way out one night that I saw him. He may have been in his office, but where he really needs to be is in the dining room, flashing that million-dollar smile and doing everything he can do to make things fabulous.
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