A first meal at Landmark comes not without a certain amount of awkward pressure. Moments after crossing the threshold, a diner finds him or herself in an inescapable line bound for the counter, where an order-taker awaits with flinty attention. Unlike a visit to a typical restaurant, this one requires a guest to map out an entire meal — dinner, sides, drinks, dessert — without the benefit of casual contemplation. Swipe your card through the reader and you're confronted with that ever-present gratuity prompt before any snippet of service has even been proffered.
Welcome to the future, folks, where restaurants like Landmark blur the lines between fast-casual and full-service. This so-called "fine-casual" arrangement satisfies our desire for unfussy efficiency without stooping to the level of steam-table chow. Sure, guests order and pay at the counter, help themselves to condiments, and seat themselves, but the food on the other end of that transaction is every bit as good as that found in a traditional sit-down cafe. Also included in the bargain are alcoholic beverages, well-composed plates, real tableware and utensils, and an attractive dining room in which to enjoy them.
Partners Constantine Katsaros and Jack Messer, who also operate the adjacent Twist Social Club, spent a good deal of time and money reshaping the old Diner on Clifton space into a sunny, cheerful and crisply tailored eatery that has the feel of a modern all-day diner. By stealing some space from Twist, the owners were able to nearly double the original footprint to 55 seats, spread across a flexible assortment of tables, banquettes, window and counter seating.
Guests need not respond to a bellowed name or number; instead, employees deliver meals and drinks to your seat, guided by a number given to customers at the counter for display in a tabletop caddy. Thick paper napkins and silverware are already on the tables. Waiting times for meals ranged from as short as 15 minutes to as long as 25 and even 35. The goal is to keep those times south of 15 minutes.
The goal might be food fast, but this is not fast food. In fact, it takes days to craft the luscious Texas-style beef brisket, which is rubbed and slow-cooked in a two-ton smoker that was custom built into the back of the kitchen. Also exiting that rig are whole turkey breasts, pork shoulders and Montreal-style smoked meat, a pastrami-like product that is made by curing and smoking brisket. Fifteen bucks lands a guy a two-fisted smoked-meat sandwich on rye with a side of perfect fries. Kraut fans can get that brisket Reuben-style ($15) with Swiss and Russian dressing griddled on a flattop until golden, warm and melty. The Smoked Meat Tray ($25) is a carnivore's playground trimmed with brisket, pulled pork, turkey, slaw, pickles and toast. Landmark offers four great sauce choices: KC, Memphis, North and South Carolina.
Despite excelling at barbecue, Landmark is not a barbecue restaurant. The trim, well-considered menu is designed to appeal to the diverse neighborhood beyond the front door. So, in addition to smoked meats there are vegan burgers and active lifestyle-approved rice bowls. It was an absolute joy to dig into the Mediterranean bowl ($13), in large part because of the creamy tahini dressing that brought the ingredients together. That cast includes good grilled chicken, diced cucumber, cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives and chickpeas on a bed of fluffy jasmine rice.
Bright, fresh and perfectly dressed salads like the House Chopped ($10), a toss of romaine and arugula with bits of house-smoked turkey, ripe avocado, crunchy croutons and velvety blue cheese dressing, make nice additions to any meal. They also can be the meal with the addition of grilled salmon ($6 supplement).
I did not expect to stumble upon such terrific fried chicken ($18), a breast, thigh, drum and whole wing shellacked in a copper-colored breading. Dipped into the house hot sauce that comes with it, the juicy meat and crispy coating makes a perfect partner for an ice-cold Fat Head's ($6).
Landmark recently launched lunch service, working off the same selection of salads, sandwiches and rice bowls as dinner, but without platters like fried chicken and smoked meats. You can get that killer fried chicken as a sandwich ($10), or go with the Club ($14), which is packed with flavorful ham, smoked turkey, bacon, lettuce and cheese on buttery grilled sourdough.
When you go, there's nothing stopping you from grabbing a menu from the wall-mounted rack, taking a seat, and pondering a course of action in peace. Regulars, of course, will already have their favorites in mind: a diner-style burger, perhaps, or burrito rice bowl. And when you finish, rejoice in the knowledge that, unlike at fast-casual shops, you need not bus your own table. That's one of the things your tip covers.