By Megan Volpert
On Tuesday, my wife and I met up for supper at Pea Ridge Kitchen & Bar. This was their big opening night and a special moment for us, too—because it’s the only non-fast-food that is easy walking distance from our house. We live on the outskirts of Decatur and naturally frequent Decatur Square, but the price of that cornucopia is as much as a half hour drive for many Decatur residents. Rule: if it takes more than ten minutes in traffic or you can’t walk to get there, it’s not your neighborhood place.
Pea Ridge doesn’t even have a sign out front yet; you just have to know it’s there, tucked behind the gas station and anchoring the parking lot of a little strip mall with a few shops that almost nobody visits. But on opening night, Pea Ridge packed that parking lot and more people were walking up McLendon toward it in a steady caravan. It had been open for about an hour and was already quite full. Apparently, I’m not the only one tired of living in a food and beverage desert.
This reminds me to tell you how I first heard Pea Ridge was coming: from my liquor store guy. Everybody in our neighborhood loves Rocky. The S & N Package Store is an awesome place that supplies many local restaurants with booze, and Rocky was proud to let us know he’ll be supplying Pea Ridge. They’ve got their beer and wine license, but have to wait a few more weeks for the liquor license to come through. Therefore, when I arrived at Pea Ridge, they offered me a free beer. Yes, a free Sweetwater 420 just for showing up. So they won my heart quickly.
And they kept it with mussels. The appetizer menu listed “mussels: wine, chile butter, garlic, baguette…$9.” They came in a giant stainless steel bowl with no surprise ingredients; it was exactly what was listed on the menu—not some arty impression of the highlights of the dish. We dug in and the bowl was bottomless. Seriously, we counted and found fully three dozen shells in there. Three dozen mussels in their off-season for nine bucks?! And so much garlic that by the end of our first half dozen there was a wonderfully spicy aftertaste. We couldn’t even finish them before our entrees arrived. Normally a new restaurant expects extra slow ticket times while the kitchen and servers are calibrating to each other’s work, but not here.
I had the Pea Ridge burger: sesame seed bun, patty with a solid char on the edges, zucchini relish, white cheese sauce, ten bucks. It came with house-made chips or the house salad, but for a buck fifty, I upgraded to one of their other sides, the wild mushrooms. After already not being able to finish the mussels before the burger came, I had to leave two bites of the burger because those mushrooms were so amazing. It was a huge portion once again, and cooked to perfection with nothing but garlic and chile flake, plus a little greenery. I asked our server where the mushrooms were from, since Pea Ridge says it’s going to stick to local sources. The server said, “nowhere fancy,” before telling me a little more. A lot of farm-to-table places want you think to that every ingredient is super special and priceless and full of a good story. I can dig that approach, but delightfully for a Tuesday night when I worked long hours and just wanted a simple supper instead of a foodie dinner, Pea Ridge’s lack of pretension hits exactly the right note.
For dessert, we got the Memphis banana pudding. I asked what makes it “Memphis.” Answer: bacon. So my wife got to put an extra dose of bacon on top of the slow smoked pork sandwich and peas with butter and bacon already in her belly. And, wow, it was great: neither too soggy nor poorly composed, totally decadent but only enough bites to fill you without making you sick, for just five bucks. It’s hard to believe we only spent about $40 for a three-course meal for two that only took us an hour to eat and was located a one minute drive from our home.
When we first sat down at a two-top covered in soft brown butcher paper and looked around, we’d been admittedly guarded and skeptical because we wanted so badly for this place to knock our socks off and it instead it made a first impression that seemed pretty subdued. Nothing fancy or fussy about anything here. The servers, who’re mostly vets from either Shorty’s Pizza or Leon’s Full Service that followed Pea Ridge’s two owners here, wear jeans, t-shirts and smiles. I don’t know all their names yet—just Courtney and Patrick’s—but I will.
Because as my wife and I sat there noshing on the last of our excellent dessert, we realized the main attraction had been who was sitting at the other tables: families of all shapes, sizes and colors. Families from our neighborhood! Every time we turned around, somebody we didn’t know was exclaiming, “hey, what’re you doing here?! How are you?” to another table of strangers we didn’t know. We marveled at the diversity of our neighborhood. We leaned over to the table next to us and introduced ourselves, said what street we lived on. We got to know our neighbors—and we enjoyed it.
I hereby officially declare Pea Ridge Kitchen & Bar the neighborhood place of all Decatur folks whose homes are located on one of the many tree-lined streets that sprout off McLendon Drive as well as the fledging apartment dwellers along Lawrenceville Highway between North Druid Hills and the Perimeter. We went back again on Wednesday—because hey, it’s right next to our house—and this time we brought two friends. I had the lamb sandwich, which was ridiculously good. That’ll probably be my go-to item. On the specials board, they listed paella. Who in their right mind would open a new restaurant with such a notoriously difficult dish? Pea Ridge would, because this neighborhood place has families to feed.
For more about Pea Ridge, visit pearidgerestaurant.com.