When the COVID-19 pandemic postponed live music and dancing indefinitely, many venues highlighted their food business. Purchasing food and drink means not only supporting them but also having a delicious meal. Here’s three suggestions on what to get, both now and when music returns, for what’s more consummate than dinner and a show?
Mr. Smalls Café
One of my favorite albums of 2020 is UR FUN by of Montreal, as I saw them perform songs from it at Mr. Smalls Theatre before the shutdowns. However, I’m grateful I can still visit Mr. Smalls Café.
I ordered the Jordan’s Sourdough Waffle Sandwich ($10), topped with house candied bacon, scrambled eggs, and maple syrup. Black pepper elevated the ingredients, which were delectable. Other waffle dishes dot the menu’s Griddle and Sweet Toof portions.
My dining partner got the cold turkey sandwich ($10), stacked with cucumber, red onion, tomato basil salad, and garlic mayo on a sourdough bread.
“Mmm,” she said. “Tastes like Thanksgiving.”
She chose potato chips as her side. Other choices were carrot sticks, greens, or a cup of tomato bisque. We split the spiced hummus and pita ($6), one of a few starters. The hummus was creamy and garlicky.
I have had the savory Beyond Burger and the hefty black bean burger (both $10). The restaurant sells espresso-based drinks and tea from Millvale’s Tupelo Honey Cafe.
Liz Berlin, who co-owns Mr. Smalls with Mike Speranzo, her husband, said of the café: “We just are happy to do it because it’s at least a presence and offers a little bit of work to some of our employees and offers a little piece of Mr. Smalls to anyone who wants to come out and support us.” She added, “It’s not destined to be a money maker or take care of all of our problems, but every little bit helps.” Mr. Smalls also has an online employee relief fund and a “Keep The Lights On” fund.
The outside resembled the moose lodge it once was, save the new Black Lives Matter mural, resplendent with a black Wonder Woman. I descended the basement stairs—like I had for a Slugss CD-release party; for a first date; for the inaugural Diamond Life dance night when, now a couple, my girlfriend and I danced to Blondie and OutKast. No crowds this time, yet punk rock played from the speakers, and the disco ball spun, a bellwether of sweeter (and sweatier) days ahead. I bought my pizza and returned home.
Spirit’s chefs elevate pizza into an art form, similar to how its performing musicians are on the musical vanguard. Like the indie singer-songwriter who deep down is a pop craftsman, these chefs don’t allow experimentation to interfere with accessibility.
Take the beer cheese pizza. Intriguing, but it was the familiar bite of the candied jalapeños that had she and I racing toward the final slice. Other toppings: house bacon, caramelized onion, breadcrumb, and chive. Crunchy. We ordered a 12-inch of it ($14) and the tasty Big Dipper ($14), made with vegan cheese sauce, arugula pesto, spinach, artichoke, seitan, preserved lemon, breadcrumb, and chives. The Grandma Sheet Pan Pizzas are bigger ($20-$26). Further, pizza varieties rotate, so check the menu.
Also solid are smaller plates, such as wings and salads, which hover around $10. Treats include the vegan Spirit Buckeyes ($3). Party combos and a catering menu are available. Bagels are for sale on the first and third Saturdays of the month at the Bloomfield Market; one can order ahead online.
I asked Tom Barr, a co-owner of Spirit, how things are going.
“They’re going fine, as good as they can,” Barr said. “It’s kind of a tricky question to answer right now.” He added, “In regards to the food, it’s going great though. We’re baking the best pizza we ever have, and the bagels are selling well at the farmer’s market.”
I’m embarrassed to report that this was my first visit to the Smiling Moose! I ordered the shrimp po boy tacos ($11), tempura fried shrimp topped with roasted red pepper and corn salsa, roasted red pepper mayo, red cabbage, Sriracha, and cilantro. The toppings added a Chinese-Mexican-fusion spiciness.
Meanwhile, the sweet bbq grilled chicken sandwich ($11)—topped with bacon, sharp cheddar, and grilled onion—was meaty and good. Homemade pasta salad, lightly flavored with vinegar, came as a side.
Myriad burgers, salads, sliders, and snacks round out the menu, all of it reasonably priced. Check online for daily soups and specials. Finally, enticing was the Moose Classic Mac & Cheese ($10), but I’ll save it for next time.
The second floor, where the stage is, has been closed, while the first floor is for dining in. “The first floor, when we’re actually able to be open, it’s ok, it holds its own,” owner and chef Mike “Scarfo” Scarlatelli, said. “Still, we’re not even touching what we could be doing.”
However, he added the Smiling Moose has always had awesome food, and now more people know about it. He’s also entertaining the idea of brewing beer and perhaps putting bands downstairs whenever live music returns.
All three venues sell merchandise and gift cards. They deliver, except for alcohol, which can be purchased for pick-up. In-door dining resumed Monday, January 4. It and outdoor seating fluctuate depending on COVID-19 restrictions and the weather, so always check. Their respective food and drink options are as much a reason to visit as their musical offerings. Whether Smalls, Spirit, the Smiling Moose, or elsewhere, find the place where you used to cut a rug and buy some grub, as we wait for music’s return.
Mr. Smalls Café
400 Lincoln Ave.
Monday thru Saturday: noon-6 p.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
242 51st St.
Thursday thru Friday: 5-10 p.m.
Saturday: 2-10 p.m.
Sunday: 2-8 p.m.
1306 E. Carson St.
Sunday thru Saturday: noon-11 p.m. (Kitchen closes at 9 p.m. Take-out and delivery until 9 p.m.)
Story and photos by Christopher Maggio.
Food was re-plated from the takeout containers for photographing.