(UPDATE, Aug. 18, 2016: Willow Lawn's Family Meal Is Now Closed)
I’ve got a bone to pick with Bryan Voltaggio. His celebrity-chef ode to the American diner, Family Meal, made me betray my dining-critic people: a small, roving tribe that will graze on whole fish and offal as appetizers. Dining companions must yield the kitchen-facing seat, never order the same thing, and accept that the voice memo app will probably be flipped on at some point during the meal. But I’m selling out, my betrayal sealed with a celery-scented kiss: Willow Lawn’s Family Meal serves the dreamiest fried chicken ever, with crackling-skinned bird brined in pickle juice, seasoned from a spice cupboard few grandmothers could replicate without skipping to Penzeys Spices. I’m loathe to cop to my jones, lest I’m ousted from the nitpicky pack.
You see, food writers would rather direct you to their “secret” chicken shack with a fryer far from the touch of anyone who’s ever appeared on Top Chef, or, conversely, they might recount a laboratory birthing of “Nashville-style” chicken foam delivered by chefs doubling as waiters. We don’t generally get excited about eateries forged with children (and the middle market) in mind.
But Family Meal sates tiny hearts’ desires just as it does for adults’, with Butterscotch banana pudding, meatloaf, everything mashed potatoes, breakfast for dinner. Their retooled oatmeal cream pie goes to work on my palate’s pleasure zone just like Little Debbie once did, but all grown up, out of the gingham box and in finer surroundings.
Consider shrimp and grits — a menu Lon Chaney — the entrée of a thousand faces, not all of them pretty. Voltaggio’s version performs brilliantly, the shellfish broth a bayou of seafood essence and chili oil, the bottom of the bowl as exciting as the rosy prawns and sausage.
This food runs notches above what most of us grew up on, unless your parents were Martha Stewart or John Fleer types adroit with mid-Atlantic staples: lush shrimp rolls; celeriac “slaw”
bit with green apple; butter-smoothed mashed potatoes rife with caraway and poppy seeds; sweet ‘n’ spicy baked beans — all worth a sample at Family Meal. Even a basic “green” salad is memorable, a composition of spinach, peas, fava and cucumber in house green goddess dressing. Outside the core menu of burgers, chicken and breakfast, soups and plates change up.
A gazpacho needs more input from other vegetables to quell a comparison to cold marinara. And, after reading the raves of my peers, I feel alone when I'm not thrilled after biting into a chicken potpie fritter, one of Voltaggio’s signature dishes.
A ramekin of coconut cream pie piped with vanilla cream tastes heavenly, and a lacy, chocolate milkshake comes with its own liquid campfire of toasted meringue. The contrasting textures and temperatures — cold, crunchy, warm and thick — and their playful appearances, make the
A stainless steel creamer/spoon combo keeps the milk so cold that chill bumps bead the pitcher. That, along with comfy chair pads and a dramatic open kitchen, suggests a host adept at entertaining. All in all, the dining room is spotless, and service on point. A few niggling fails — a forgotten salad and an empty soap dispenser in the restroom at the start of service — don’t tarnish the restaurant’s shine.
Ranking Family Meal is a challenge. It isn’t whipping up cheffy eats like Voltaggio’s Maryland restaurants Volt and Aggio, but that’s the point. Instead, the staff is super-nice to your kids while fulfilling the Family Meal raison d’être: child-friendly, thoughtfully prepared comfort foods. Only a few plates and sandwiches, like seared scallops or báhn mì, don’t register “diner.” The bulk of the options could be from a high-ticket diner from the future. An impressive bar program includes lower-alcohol “session” cocktails, to boot.
Family Meal's new Willow Lawn location at 1601 Willow Lawn Drive #300C. (Photo by Sarah Walor)
Prices run roughly 35 percent higher than the average blue-plate-special joint, and once you add a few drinks, it’s not an everyday tab. But, if you consider the casually chic atmosphere and the fact that the recipes spring from a chef mentored by James Beard Award winner Charlie Palmer, it doesn’t feel expensive to eat here. You just have to commit to it.