Around 1979 or 1980, the building at 590 N. Perkins housed a bar and restaurant known as A Touch of Nostalgia. Eddie Harrison and the Shortcuts frequently played there, and a server — I don't recall her name, but I'll never forget her drink — introduced me to the briny, olive-laden vodka concoction years before I heard the term "Dirty Martini." She took hers in a rocks glass, and I was glad to drink mine the same way.A Touch of Nostalgia quickly came and went, and Mortimer's opened in 1981. Yet walking inside the dark room with its big polished horseshoe bar, a wall pasted with photos of regulars, and a cozy fireplace between two couches, you'll find yourself nostalgic for the neighborhood restaurant or bar of your surely well-spent youth.
Mortimer's is just a couple of miles from the upscale restaurants along the Poplar corridor and less than 15 minutes from hip Cooper-Young, but it's unlikely anyone designed this place. It was decorated, and there's some taxidermy involved. No one created a wine list, and no one developed the menu. There's a cook, not a chef, and if you ask about specialty drinks, you'll be met with "Do you mean like happy hour specials?"
But you're probably going to like it. It's comfortable, from the atmosphere to the people to, most of all, the food. I often ask people why they eat at chains instead of local restaurants, and the most common answer is that they feel a local restaurant will serve food they don't know. At Mortimer's, fried mushrooms and potato skins are still on the menu, and I can't imagine there's anything that the most basic Southern palate hasn't sampled.
But here's the deal: The fried mushrooms? They're not frozen, but fresh, hand-battered and fried up to order. And hallelujah, so are the onion rings. The burger is hand-formed, and it's juicy and well seasoned. Cornbread and yeast rolls are made in-house, and the lunch specials are great — hearty home cooking that brings in suited businessmen and retired couples.
We ordered the pot roast and the Lacey Special, a dish so associated with the Little Tea Shop that it's always a surprise to see it anywhere else. The pot roast was very good, served with a few slices of carrot and chunks of potatoes under a thick brown gravy. Mashed potatoes, served with the same gravy, were also good, creamy enough that there was a hint of milkiness. Turnip greens were tender, a little overcooked for me but not mushy (and cooked exactly right, according to my mother). Coleslaw was simple and great — chopped cabbage with a bit of onion and not too much mayo.
The Lacey Special is such a simple dish: A boneless chicken breast with corn sticks and gravy is about all it is, and unfortunately, the chicken breast was overcooked, too dry for the gravy to disguise. As it's a menu standard, it could've been a bad day. Forgiving? Well, consider this.
Lacey Special was once served at The Knickerbocker restaurant (as was the creamy, zesty Knickerbocker shrimp salad at Mortimer's). That's no coincidence, as Mortimer's owner Sara Stewart is the daughter of the late Vernon Mortimer Bell, who owned The Knickerbocker — and the Little Tea Shop. Though I didn't try it, the pecan ball, an ice cream dessert popular at the Little Tea Shop, also is on the menu at Mortimer's.
Salad dressings are made in-house at Mortimer's, which, of course, is good. The salad is pretty uninspired, though — shredded cheese, cherry tomatoes and an iceberg mix. Yet homemade croutons top it.
I like Mortimer's, but think I could love it if they cared just a bit more. Take the grouper with grits. The fish was excellent. It was a huge fillet, fried crisp (they know how to work a fryer) and served with a side of downright delicious yellow squash. But the grits were of supermarket quality.
Red beans and rice: They were spicy and well-seasoned, but made without gravy (for real red beans and rice, you've got to purée some beans). Also, the smoked sausage served on top should be grilled before it's added to the dish, because that simple — and cost-free — step would seriously enhance the flavor of the meat. Seafood dishes come with either crabmeat or "krabmeat," so read carefully if you don't want surimi dotting your fish.
The sirloin was a perfect medium-rare and a nicely seasoned piece of meat; the ribeye was cooked to order but leaning toward tough.
Still, Mortimer's goes on the list of places I'll visit more often — and I'm looking forward to it. I like the neighborhood vibe, the prices are reasonable, and the folks are nice. There's nothing complicated about it, and I can see why friends who dine there frequently do so.
Address: 590 N. Perkins
Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday 4-11 p.m.; Sunday 4-9 p.m. (live music by Van Duren Thursdays 6:30-8:30 p.m.)
Reviewer’s choices: Mort burger ($7.99); fried grouper ($15.99); pot roast (lunch special, $8.29); Knickerbocker shrimp salad ($9.99); lemon ice box pie ($3.99).
Alcohol: Full bar, but a poor wine selection.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars