Venue Review: Fran's Filling Station
The Charlotte Observer
2410 Park Road
Your idea of the perfect neighborhood place might not be mine, but I think we can safely stipulate a few things:
1. Jeans must be welcome.
2. Several dishes - some reasonably hefty - must cost $8 or less, and mashed potatoes need to be in the lineup.
3. No emo music and nothing with an "nn-chih" beat.
4. A few good beers and wines, and a few cheap ones, are necessary, as are at least two dishes that could not be defined as comfort food.
5. Both your folks and your kids should be comfortable there (though not necessarily together, and not necessarily with you).
Fran's Filling Station in Dilworth hits every point. Is it perfect? No, and maybe that's point 6: Revisions are ongoing and if something is off, you're comfortable telling somebody.
Fran Scibelli first came to Charlotte's attention with Metropolitan Café, then Metropolitan Bakery, then the dineresque Sweet Alice's. The Stanford grad had left a law career in Washington to pursue her passion for food. She closed Metropolitan Bakery six years ago, and spent the interim consulting, working in real estate in California, catering quietly for Wachovia and NASCAR back here - but missed the rush and feedback of a restaurant.
Vibrant flavors, good ingredients and the strong belief that what's good is good, no matter how unpretentious, have been her signature. So it's no wonder the Filling Station menu is chockablock with things like deviled eggs, meatballs (with "gooey melted cheese on request"), slow-roasted beef and braised greens.
Twists include Japanese-tinged crispy babybacks (fabulous) and mussels in a variety of preps, with or without fries - which also can be had in a variety of ways. Maryland-style crabcakes coexist with seared tuna with wasabi - enough, in other words, to have a fling if you feel like it.
That endears the place to me, since I mostly find myself having to choose between comfort and fun, and here, I can have either.
A few significant troubles: Mussels arrived overcooked, though their curry sauce was slurpable. Fries have been great (crisp, full-flavored and hot) and not so (oily and lukewarm), and the veggie burger had terrific flavors - tomato chutney, yogurt sauce, Moroccan carrot salad - but was mush on a bun.
Metro meatloaf, on the other hand, was as warming as it was a decade ago. Cheesy polenta and mac and cheese and hot Vidalia onion dip all contribute a carb-ic karma (look! Triscuits!) and the roasted cauliflower is simply superb. So's the apple crisp.
Scibelli is merging some menu areas so that the lunch lineup, currently sandwiches and salads, includes some dinnertime things and vice versa. She also acknowledges some kitchen difficulties. She's not happy yet, which comes as no surprise to those familiar with her work - but she says she's learned a happy staff is more likely to make customers happy, so she's taking things slower: "I'm trying to make this an institution."
Servers in T-shirts with alternately peppy and wry sayings (fave: "Note to Fran: Relax") know the menu and exude calm, a point in favor of any place dealing with all age ranges and both couples and large groups that do get a bit loud. They need to check in on tables more frequently, particularly when the kitchen slows, to keep diners equally calm, and throwing around free sides or desserts (as I've seen them do) always helps if a bottleneck occurs.
But diners must give a little leeway to idiosyncratic neighborhood places, too - no, everything doesn't always come out in 6.3 minutes as it does at a chain, and there are reasons for that.
And those reasons make all the difference.