May 14, 2011

Coal Vines: One and Done

Restaurant: Coal Vines
Location: 616 Ward Parkway (Plaza)
Food: Pizza, Italian
Service: Traditional waitstaff
Atmosphere: Trendy, cheesy
Price: Apps $6-$10; Pizzas $13-$17, Entrees $12-$15
Rating: One Napkin

Every now and then a good night's sleep leads to a point of clarity upon awakening. After sleeping on my first trip to Coal Vines last night, I had one such moment waking up today. It was this simple assessment: Coal Vines is the type of restaurant that was clearly started by businessmen looking to make a buck.

One look at the safe, small menu, a glance around at the decor and the second that crooner music registered above the roar of the dining room noise it was obvious that every decision made in the creation of the restaurant was geared toward pleasing the masses and maximizing "dollaric intake."

Coal Vines has one of the safest menus I've come across in quite some time. It's a pizza joint, dressed up in man-7's and a hundred dollar shirt from Nordstrom. There's just nothing original going on here. Apps like bruschetta, mozzarella sticks and fried calamari. Six pizzas, a couple of them white. Entrees like salmon, roasted chicken and a few pastas. Two sandwiches, chicken parm and.. oh wait, the second one is also chicken parm, but with tomato, onion and arugula added called, get this, The Godfather.

I can just hear the conversation that led to this restaurant concept: "You know what people like? They like fried calamari, pizza and Frank Sinatra." But here's the thing: that statement is absolutely, undeniably, 100 percent true. It's a proven business model.

Coal Vines was still packed when we arrived around 9:30. It was dark and warm inside with a lot of noise--clinking of glasses, banging in the kitchen and a loud hum of laughter and conversation; it was the type of greeting that makes one feel safe about his/her restaurant decision. It told the brain that it was in a successful, popular place where people want to be and are enjoying themselves.

We were taken by a polite host to our seat at the far east end of the restaurant, under the massive mural of those cliched crooners, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. For what it was, the mural was attractive enough - black and white, lit with spotlights reminiscent of the ones those two lived under during their working days - but I've had all the Martin and Sinatra I can stomach in Italian restaurants. They're played out. I shuddered slightly each time I looked up at them.

After an initial glance at the menu, we decided to embrace the cliches and ordered up the mesclun salad, fried calamari and a pizza. Why not review the food that the majority of Coal Vines customers will also get?

Lest readers think I'd written off the place based on my personal restaurant snobbery, I'll come right out and say all the food was good. The salad greens were lightly coated in the bacon vinaigrette. What it lacked in apples (each half had just two wafer-thin slices) and montrachet (two tiny dollops) it made up for with sweet, tangy cranberries. The calamari was nice and lightly fried, the rare kind of fried food of which I could eat lots. And the pizza, a 14-inch, thin crusted pie with red sauce, sausage and roasted red peppers, was meaty and delicious. New York-influenced, the slices were huge, almost begging to be folded Brooklyn style. Then again, it reminded me that I've had better pizza served to me on a paper plate on a street corner in Manhattan for $3.50. But it was good and I ate much of it.

We washed it all down with a sugary-sweet Coppola pinot which, at $35, was a little overpriced. The wine list was chock-full of grocery store names, including several Jacob's Creek selections I'd be remiss not to point out are often available at Sunfresh in Westport for as little as $4.99, normally on sale for $6.99. There is a list of Private Cellar selections ("Bad Boys at a Good Price"), but they, too, are mega-popular labels like Silver Oak, Chateau St. Jean, Trefethen and Cakebread. Spin!, quite honestly, has a more inspired and reasonably priced wine selection. With a name that nods to wine, Coal Vines ought to step up their wine game.

I left Coal Vines happy enough about the food I ate (note, they serve brunch, too, which from the sounds of Charles Ferruzza's review is a poorly done attempt to carry over the business RE:verse used to bring it at that time of day), but without motivation to return. It's a perfectly enjoyable restaurant that will appease picky, unadventurous eaters (read: the lemmings who pile into chains all across the country), but that's not what I seek out with my dining dollars.

Still, its business savvy owners should feel satisfied; I'm sure it will make plenty of money.

Rating: one napkin

Coal Vines Pizza & Wine Bar on Urbanspoon



I went in with fairly low expectation, as it seems like these days, just about every restaurant that opens is trying for this same money grab (see the gazillion upscale burger joints that have popped up on the heels of Blanc's success).
I agree with you about the ambiance. It felt like a contrived chain that you would find in front of a mall and lacked the uniqueness you would hope to find - and is becoming more and more rare – in an establishment on the Plaza.
I will say that the food was (while safe, yes) was really good.
I got the Caesar Salad. The dressing was a tad bland, but was accompanied by home made croutons that we're killer.
We ordered the large Bolognese pizza. Not because the two of us were super hungry, but it was only $2 more than the small, so what the heck.
It was really good sized and the Bolognese sauce was like eating really good spaghetti on a pizza. The crust was also really good - as most places that attempt to pull off wood-fired crust end up with a dry tasteless bone.

I wouldn't say that I'm a one and done with this place, but when hungry for pizza, it probably won't make my top 5 in the city either.

Anonymous said...

Worst. Name. Ever.

Chris Jones said...

Nice review. I could not agree more with your assessment. Good pizza nonetheless, but it reminded me alot of all the restaurants I grew up on in Dallas. Safe and L.C.D.

The pizza dough spinning is pretty impressive.

kimberlyloc said...

The beau and I went here for lunch today. I'd already read your review, but was intrigued anyway. We got the same pizza you did...the sausage + red peppers. Pretty tasty. Had a good spinach pizza too, and each had a glass of wine. I'd go back...nothing amazing about it, but good food and reasonable pricing. Agree on decor — I wonder if they actually had real jazz singers or anything like that it would make it a lil better? Or up the cheese factor? :) I wish the menu was more expansive, choices, as you said, and nothing too exciting/extraordinary.

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