On my first visit to Local Gastropub in Overton Square, I met a friend upstairs for lunch. Halfway up the steps, I shook my head as a wave of nostalgia hit without warning.
The place cleaned up real nice — it looks great. But the stairs that cut through the middle of the building are still there, and walking up them evoked a strong memory of the old Hot Air Balloon (upstairs from Yosemite Sam's) and the performance duo that welcomed visitors with insults. I involuntarily braced myself, if just for an instant, then continued on up the steps.
If the revitalization of Overton Square is as successful as Local appears to be, ghosts such as this are likely to haunt many others as crowds return to the crossroads of Madison and Cooper in droves.
Local opened in October, smack dab on the northeast corner, after a lengthy renovation of the former Yosemite Sam's. Like the first Local, which opened on South Main in January 2010, emphasis is on beer, specialty cocktails and a nice menu of so-called pub grub — hearty, unpretentious yet thoughtful and creative dishes.
There's a lunch menu that features a different $10 lunch each weekday, from meatloaf and brisket to chicken (two ways) and lasagna. A generous portion of smoked, roughly shredded beef brisket in a tangy and slightly sweet Dr Pepper barbecue sauce is served on Wednesday, alongside green chili mac and an order of firecracker slaw. It's delicious and straightforward — meat, starch and vegetable — and it's particularly appealing on days such as the cold and gray ones that plagued us in December.
On Friday, Chicken Newport is the lunch special. A healthier alternative to a hearty beef lunch? Oh, no. Thick slices of chicken breast are sauteed in an enormous amount of butter, then covered in a garlic cream sauce and given a liberal sprinkling of blue cheese crumbles. The green beans that came with ours, the vegetable of the day, offered no virtue, floating as they were on that golden pool of butter/oil. The dish was bursting with flavor, though at a much higher caloric cost than I'm willing to pay.
There are salads on the menu, but it's cold outside and I was more interested in the heartier fare. A $10 half sandwich and soup lunch of grilled cheese and chorizo chili was ideal for a rainy day. The grilled cheese varies; I was served a combination of blue cheese and Gouda on buttery toasted brioche, dressed with chipotle mayonnaise, tomato and bacon. Delicious. The chili needed salt, but there's salt at the table and it just took a dash to fix it right up.
The regular menu, which includes a small but satisfying selection of entrees, a fabulous burger, salads and sandwiches, is also available at lunch. Let's talk about that burger.
Santa could've brought it to me for Christmas and I would've been happy. I won't say it's the best burger in town, because come on, there are a lot of great burgers in town. But I will say that the one I shared was one of the best burgers I've tasted — ever. The Donnell Farms beef was tender, juicy and buttery, perfectly seasoned and cooked to medium, topped with paper-thin slices of red onion, sweet dill slices, mustard and Gouda, our choice of cheese. Bacon, fried egg and foie gras are available, but we resisted and I'm glad. The burger was unbeatable as served.
The duck bahn mi sandwich was very good, and what's not to love about duck, pork belly, Sriracha sauce and cilantro-lime slaw on a baguette?
Tomato jam makes just one appearance on the menu; I'd love to see more of it. But what a splash it makes, spread on a fat biscuit with an order of fish and grits. The entree came with a large portion of lightly breaded and fried catfish, tender spicy greens, a heaping helping of stone-ground grits, and the biscuit and jam.
The food delivers, and the place is enormously popular. It was full when we ate lunch there last week, despite it being later than 1 p.m. Sunday dinner was also packed. Service was harried on our first visit in November, but much improved a month later (as was the food).
While spacious, with high ceilings and windows along the full front and part of the east, Local feels cozy and welcoming. It's on the loud side (very loud one night, when the security alarm went off and no one was able to stop it for about 10 minutes), but it's the noise of people happily going about the business of eating, drinking and visiting.
Address: 2126 Madison
Hours: Opens daily at 11 a.m. and the bar is open until 3 a.m. The kitchen is open until 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Reviewer’s choice: Local burger ($12); grilled cheese and chorizo chili ($10); brisket lunch special ($10); fish and grits, ($22).
Alcohol: Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars