Monday, August 27, 2012

The Courthouse Grill

250 1st Street
Hillsboro, Mo.

 We've been waiting for quite a while for this place to open up. We pass by this spot several times a week as it sits right in the middle of town. Finally this past week Angel and Adam saw people actually dining there.
I looked them up online to find out about hours, meal choices, etc. Nada. 
No web site, no Facebook page, nothing. Some of the auto-populating directories had a phone number and street address, and nothing else, so Friday night I called and was told the hours were Tuesday through Saturday 10 A.M until 10 P.M. Good enough.
The Place:
As I said we’d been watching. Weeks, maybe even a couple of months of construction. This appeared to be a complete renovation off the old building just of the main drag, across from the courthouse. It has its own designated parking area, a necessity being that close to the county court. Downtown parking is, like every other county seat, tricky during weekdays.
We parked and stepped right in, passing by the patio and the half dozen or so patrons seated there. Though the temperature was pleasant enough, the skies were clouding up and the breeze was a little gusty. That and the fact that we don’t especially like eating outdoors made the decision to dine inside rather easy.
We stepped in, the place was much bigger on the inside than any of us expected. There was plenty of available seating in the longer than wide dining area.  We glanced around and saw no obvious hostess, no one coming toward us. From the back a young lady finally emerged and advised us to sit anywhere we liked.
We picked a spot near the front, by the window. It afforded a view of the entire place.
The young lady handed us menus and wrote down our drink order, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and unsweetened tea. 
About three minutes later another lady stopped by and offered to take our drink orders. We told her that it had already been taken and she asked by whom. “A younger lady” was all I could come up with and that didn’t help much since there were three or more younger lady waitresses scattered about. She said she’d figure it out.
The drinks did arrive, all in St. Louis Rams beer glasses.
St. Louis has a professional football team called the Rams. I don’t hear much about it since A. I’m not into football, and B. The Rams belong in Los Angeles as God intended. I blame the Arizona Cardinals football team for this mess. St. Louis is very much a baseball town, overwhelmingly so. Football, eh, not so much.
The place looked new. The mostly undecorated walls were painted a curious shade of light green that I can only describe as ‘pickle juice’. The only things on those walls were four or five beer signs, all touting  Anheuser-Busch-Inbev products, don’t get me started on that crime. In the back, over the bar was a large TV tuned in to a baseball game. Also over the bar there was one more AB/Inbev related neon sign.
The carpet was industrial and unnoticeably brown on lighter brown. The tables and chairs were noticeable, new, dark wood and modern.
All in all it was fresh, clean and modern. Sparse maybe, but not barren-sparse, more Scandinavian sparse.
The Food.
The menus were also fresh, clean and uncluttered, Burgers, sandwiches, specialties, seafood and steaks. Classic American cuisine.
Some of the burgers and sandwiches had court-related names like The Defender, The Judge and The Prosecutor. Cute. I was tempted by the simple BLT but decided to forgo my intuition and appetite and to instead try what I assumed to be a signature dish, the Courthouse Burger. They offered two different kinds of fries, shoestring and steak. My preference is somewhere in between, but I asked for the shoestring.
Adam asked for the Defender, a hand-cut ribeye steak served on grilled Texas toast. He asked for the steak fries, I was glad, I wanted to compare them against mine.
Cheese, bacon, mushrooms and grilled onions are considered options here. At one dollar per. I added cheddar cheese to mine and the waitress worked to up-sell the onions or mushrooms. I told her I might want the onions but the dollar would come out of her tip. She grinned and shrugged her shoulders, "Fine with me” she said.
Angel asked for the Gulf Shrimp Scampi and two sides, a baked potato and vegetables. Today’s veggie was ‘a medley’ according to the waitress, it sounded like Veg-All to me.
I noticed that the waitress wrote none of this down. As I’ve said before, this is a neat trick if you can pull it off 100% of the time, error free. Otherwise its just a stupid, pointless trick that is more nuisance than impressive. I’ve never been annoyed by a waitress writing down details of an order. I have been annoyed, more often than not, when they get something this simple, wrong.
The Defender
But we’d wait and see. And wait we did. The place was busy, busier than I could figure out a reason for it to be that busy. Hillsboro has a population of only sixteen hundred or so, and this was certainly a local-centric place being located behind the courthouse. It was Saturday evening, no court, no county business at all, even the nearby county jail wasn’t doing a booming business (yet). The patrons seemed local-like, no suits, mostly jeans and boots. Several young cowboy types including two rather large groups. Tight jeans, snakeskin boots, camouflage ball caps, Skoal rings in the hip pockets. I was trying to figure out what the draw to a brand new place was until one of the cowboys answered his country-music ring-toned phone. After the initial hello’s he said “We’re up here in Hillsboro.”
That told me a lot. He and his gang were not locals at all, they were in from the southern, more rural parts of the county, thus the ’up here in Hillsboro.’ I suspected there might be an event at the fairgrounds or something like that.*
I watched, waited, Adam and Angel poked at their phones.
Our drinks needed refills before the food ever arrived. The wait wasn’t terrible but it was noticeable. The waitresses appeared to be in a rush, dashing about more with  hurry than efficiency.  Several other patrons arrived and were told to sit wherever they liked. This would be a problem later. I’ll explain when I get to the sermon portion of this review.
Gulf Shrimp Scampi
The food did arrive, and it looked good. Filled plates, sizzling meat, melting cheese. I had enough grilled onions to choke a unicorn, they were piled high on the burger and falling off the sides. There was a pale tomato slice, some slightly wilted lettuce and an entire slice of raw onion on the side  The fries were not exactly what I would call ‘shoestring’ but they looked toasty and crispy. Also on the plate was a large dill wedge. The bun was obviously not a grocery store generic bun. I appreciated the touch. Adam’s Texas toast looked very good, and Angel’s plate certainly seemed colorful. The waitress stepped away quickly and I noticed as I was photographing the plates, Adam’s first, he’s the most impatient about that sort of thing, that his fries were the same size as mine. The waitress had gotten the order wrong, so much for the ‘I can remember all this without writing it down’ party trick. Fail.
Adam wasn’t too concerned about it so we didn’t ask for a correction.
We dug in after the waitress returned with some ketchup and cocktail sauce. She asked if I’d like mustard. Duh. It’s a burger. “Yes Please.” is how it actually came out of my mouth.
The burger was quite good, cheesy, smoky, just enough char. The fries were nice, but it kind of seemed they were pulled from the bottom of the bag, more ends and short pieces than whole strips.
The Courthouse burger
Adam struggled with his ribeye, pulling globs of chewy fat out of it, one glob about half the size of the steak.
Angel handed me a shrimp, I tried it. It seemed a bit overcooked, rubbery, but the taste was dead-on scampi.
I asked her about the veggies. They looked kind of pale, limp and lifeless to me, almost . . . “Frozen” Angel said, interrupting my train of thought. Yeah, that was it, they looked frozen.
Don’t take this all the wrong way, as far as food goes it was all pretty good. Not great, but good enough to go back for and maybe try something else. They’ve got good recipes, the tastes were there, with a little fine tuning and fresher/better quality ingredients the problems can all be fixed easily enough. But then there’s. . .

The Service:
First off, this place is brand new. I always cut some slack for new places as it takes time for the staff to find its rhythm and timing. So my sermon here should not be taken as harsh criticism, but rather as constructive comments since I want this place to do well. Hillsboro needs a place just like this.
I mentioned earlier the ‘seat yourself’ policy. Epic fail. (we debated over the modifier ‘epic’ and I won with this one bit of observation:
An elderly couple came in and found a seat, not too far from the front door. I’d noticed them out of the corner of my eye for no real reason other than they were taking up space in the corner of my eye. Nicely dressed, quiet, peaceful folk, not at all like the cowboys and their halter-topped lady friends.  Several minutes later, maybe ten or fifteen, I noticed movement in that same eye corner. It was the old couple leaving. I noticed their table had no plates, glasses or even menus. They’d gone completely unnoticed by the wait staff. That’s an epic fail.  Lost business, lost positive word of mouth. Ouch. I’m as laissez faire as the next guy, but this free-range seating policy means customers will slip through the cracks. It is actually counter-productive and counter-profit. The solution is simple. Either assign a hostess to seat people so they get immediate welcome and attention, or failing that, assign a floor supervisor/expediter whose primary job it is to keep an eye peeled on the entire dining area to look for things like impatience, empty glasses, etc. This is how every other restaurant in the world handles front-of-the-house service.  Someone needs to keep an eye open, a designated person, not just the waitresses, they’re busy enough with their own table issues. Someone like, I don’t know, maybe the lady behind the bar that watched the couple leave. She noticed them as they left, I could tell.
This ‘seat yourself’ policy also meant lopsided service areas for the waitresses. Most people don’t really have a firm seating preference, they’ll go where you take them. This allows balance in the dining area, waitresses given grids, specific areas to serve on a balanced, level playing field.  This also explains the issue with twice being asked for our drink order, inefficiency, counter-productivity, disorganization. Not very professional. But so easily fixed. It’s a new place, when we go back in a couple of months we will be looking for this to have been resolved. Seat yourself works in a tiny, ten table diner, not in a full-floor dining area. Also, make the wait staff writes down orders, nobody minds this, but they do mind when their order gets screwed up.
Now the food. Like I said it was pretty good and the problems are easily enough resolved. Trim the excess fat off of steaks, even steak sandwiches. It was simply gross. “Not very satisfying” Is how Adam put it. And seriously guys, the vegetable of the day was frozen? Really? There ought to be a law.
Summary:
Once again this is a brand new place. The food was for the most part good, the selections were attractive and in theory all good ideas. This is not a greasy spoon nor fast food joint, it is expected that the food will be of better quality than those places. It is expected that the service as well will be better. All this place needs to do is fix these little problems and this could be upgraded to a very good place rather quickly.
The bill came to a respectable thirty six dollars and change, including the dollar for the two cents worth of grilled onions. Though not as expensive as some franchise sports bars, or even Munzert’s right up the road, this is about fifty percent more than a diner or fast food place. For this extra cost the service and food quality needs to make it seem worth it.
They’re off to a good start, you’ve got a great location and the city needs a place just like this, but it will not suffer bad service for very long.
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*As it turned out there was a tractor pull at the fairgrounds. This explained the unexpected busyness of the restaurants, the traffic jam on main street, and the much greater than normal number of big, black-smoke-belching diesel pickup trucks in town. Yee- haw.




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4 comments:

  1. I eat regularly at the Courthouse Grill. Service is quick, food is great, location excellent.

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  2. I've eaten there several times. The food is great, love the burgers, the fries not so much. They still forget some things on your orders and it's still "sit anywhere you like!" I'm rooting for ya Courthouse Grill! Fix the small things and you will have a Great place here. The food really is good.

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  3. I love the food at Courthouse Grill. The servic, however, leaves ALOT to be desired. If you only have an hour for lunch (as most of us do since we work at the courthouse) order your food ahead of time or you will be taking back to eat at your office! Salads take 45 minutes to appear on your table!! Aslo, the waitresses seem to think because they are big chested and blonde, you will overlook the fact that they are slow. That may work for their male customers but not for me :) Aslo, they offer a "Loyalty Card" that they are supposed to put points on and as the points build you can use it to pay for your meal.Do not waste your time trying to get this card. I have tried to use mine 6 times now and everytime i get told"I am sorry but for some reason this just won't let us put points on it!" Ummmm.....why offer it then???? If you have a long time to go in and eat I recommend the place. Otherwise, bring your lunch!

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    1. Our family ate there on Valentine's Day. We arrived early about 4pm to beat the rush, still walk in w/ no one to greet you and still seat yourself. I was a little disappointed they were already out of Asparagus (a regular side item) but was fine to order the salad instead. Not impressed with the service here, we have eaten here several times & while the food is good (Steaks sometimes are a little more fatty than most), the service leaves much to be desired. Waiting with empty drinks for ten minutes before the waitress comes by & another ten minutes for them to get back with a refill, orders not correct and just the general lack of knowledge sometimes of their own menu. While Muntzerts may have been a little higher on prices (not by much) I hated to see them close as I never had an issue with a wrong order, poor service & never had a fatty steak there.

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