Friday, August 31, 2012

The place where everyone knows your name ain't Cheers

Twenty-five years ago this month, Jim and Mike Theossidou started a restaurant in the west end of Ottawa. Having arrived from Greece when they were children, the brothers Theossidou used a restaurant concept that reflected their own lives: Greek basics meet Canadian basics. The result, named in honour of the famed American painter, was Rockwell's Restaurant, located in the Merivale Mall. It serves good food 24 hours a day nearly every single day of the year.

Here I am! Rockwell like a hurricane!

Twenty-five years in the restaurant business is quite the accomplishment, especially without having to deviate from an overall concept. Rockwell's has endured the growth of Merivale from a boulevard to a teeming retail artery busting from the seams with motorists. Merivale Mall, a holdover from some extant era where small, interior-corridor shopping centres were profitable, hasn't fundamentally changed in character from the early 90's, and there is a certain steadfastness that it shows among the booming big boxes that surround it.
There are places like Rockwell's scattered across Canada; local joints that rear their neighbours on good quality, simple food for years such that they become an institution. People from elsewhere in the city might drive by a hundred times and passingly wonder what it's like in there, but surely they have 100 places that they still haven't tried and they won't use up limited restaurant budget on a place in a run-down strip mall.It's a shame, really. Despite the risk that a dive's food might match the surroundings, I always find reluctance to take a risk to be a bit tragic.

Here's the skinny on Rockwell's. When you walk in you'll be surprised by a decor that is updated, clean, and has just enough elements of cheese to be charming. The staff will smile, or if you're lucky welcome you with a bellow from behind the bar.  There are no pretentions with the service or the food on offer. We're talking sandwiches, deep-dish pizza, inexpensive steaks and roasted chicken. Rockwell's spices it up with Greek staples like souvlaki and moussaka that look really good. I actually felt a moment of regret for ordering a burger when I saw the moussaka come out of the kitchen. They serve up a great greasy breakfast deep into the lonely hours of the night for hard working shift staff or insomniac west-enders. The diversity of diners is really striking, from high school students to elderly couples and young mothers.

I didn't really have any expectations about their burger other than big and greasy. There are a few burgers on offer and usually one available on the specials at lunchtime. I opted for the Swiss mushroom burger, an old diner star that can be incredibly good or just meh.

Read on to see if the joint still has its magic after twenty-five years.

The burger

The patty consists of 8oz of well-seasoned ground beef. Like good Greeks they've put a good amount of onions and oregano in the meat, so a bite of just the patty is fresh, sweet and herbacious. The patty is nice and thick, with goodly juices despite it coming sad 'ol well done. Char is nice and the grease level is acceptable, if not on the dry side. It's not in-house ground meat from hand-fed cows but it's good, serviceable beef. This is the type of burger that you would expect to have when going over to a friend's house for a Sunday barbeque and they've bought all of the ingredients at the local supermarket. Taken individually the ingredients could be better, but together you understand that this has coalesced with thought.

Meat bathed in stuff.
There is serious, complete cheese coverage. Even if the Swiss cheese tastes a bit Costco it was in line with my expectations of the place. The mushrooms were well sauteed, nice and buttery, and mounded the cheese beautifully. There were no condiments to go along with the burger, a nice choice given the amount of cheese adequately greased the meat. Finally, a nice sweet bed of fried onions rounded out the hitherto-umami experience.

Garnishes included plenty of sliced red onions, romaine, sorta-ripe tomato and pickle. Lots of crunch to go with the smooth.

The bun was decent but could definitely have used improvement, and this was probably the biggest knock against the Rockwell's experience. It was a white, disparately-seeded soft bun that tasted like something that desperately wanted to focus your palate elsewhere. (As an aside, don't you just love homynyms?) It held the large burger together nicely, but it wasn't tasty enough, wasn't toasted enough, and provided too much fluff for its own good.

I said I looooove Rock and Well!
The burger was $11, which was good value for what was on offer. It met my expectations. Overall, it was a big, comfortable burger offered up at a neighbourhood joint with as much care as a regular. You don't go to Rockwell's for the gourmet, but for this peculiar draw of personable service, a comfy interior and an inoffensive menu. Not a destination, but definitely a stop if you work in the area or catch yourself in stop-and-start traffic on Merivale and need to get off the road before you ram the Miata in front of you.

For those about to Rockwell, we salute you!
The sides

Fries are from a bag. Avoid at all costs. Order a salad, preferably Greek.


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