Set foot in Our Place Café on North Academy Boulevard, and you're met with a vast space that doesn't quite rise up to meet you. The mirrored bar shelves sit vacant amid brown, minimally dressed walls and tables stretching from large windows emblazoned with the words "Southern Home Cookin'."
Thankfully, staff members will offer a warm greeting. On my lunch visit, they promptly handed both of my kids a zoo-themed chalkboard. Nice touch, given that every parent loves getting the little ones preoccupied early. Lidded cups of juice soon arrived for them as well, and the kids' menu seemed to be a hit. They enjoyed a mini-pizza and mini-corndogs (each $3.50), both with fries.
It was with the grown-up dishes that things went south, and not in the way the window implies.
We opted to bypass the regular menu of salads, burgers and sandwiches for two blue-plate specials, seemingly a steal at $5.99 each. I went for the pork chops, choosing egg noodles and green beans as my sides; my husband ordered the beef tips, with mashed potatoes and collard greens.
When they came, though, our dishes looked like leftovers tossed onto a plate. My smothered chops appeared only slightly less brown than the beef tips, and though properly cooked, they were doused in thick, unexciting, flour-laden gravy. As the character Cookie said in City Slickers: "The food's hot, brown and there's plenty of it." At least for me.
The tender tips arrived lukewarm against the steaming mashed potatoes.
"The service is so fast, my food didn't get a chance to get hot," my husband quipped.
Given the lackluster entrées, our sides took on starring roles; we loved the collard greens and the green beans mixed with onion and bacon. But on the whole, this was anything but special, tasting more like diner food than true Southern cooking. Though we'd been told about from-scratch cooking and a focus on fresh meats from Andy's Meat Market, the lunch menu just didn't convey it.
A follow-up breakfast didn't entirely bring redemption. My friend ordered the country-fried steak and eggs ($6.95) and a side of grits. The eggs appeared as requested, and the grits were properly creamy, but we debated on the steak. She flat-out swore, "There is no way this is fresh-made." Symmetrical in shape, it lacked the crunch and meatiness of down-home types, and had a "from frozen" taste.
My meal was better: The biscuits and gravy ($4.50) arrived perfectly up to temp, with light and fluffy biscuits and a satisfying if too-lightly-spiced gravy.
Next up were sides of home fries and flapjacks. The crispy fries ($2), mixed with onions, tasted great, but looked sparse and random on the large plate, as if there'd been only a few left in the pan and I'd asked for seconds. By contrast, the pancakes ($4.50) arrived three high and amply aerated, ready to soak up the butter and the syrup. Delicious.
Our Place left me thinking: Home cooking is a good thing, but when I'm out, I want food at least a notch above what I'd make for myself on a lazy night. Our Place needs to doll up its plates, and to give its large space some britches. Owner Eric Powers and his family crew need to show real Southern flair, and truly make it their place.