With its unassuming storefront on the square in Columbia City, North Side Grille is the kind of place you could drive past countless times without ever wondering what was inside, let alone deciding to dine there.
But what I found inside was a quaint, rather impressive-looking restaurant and bar that was comfortable and welcoming with just the right kind of menu for a small-town family place.
The long, narrow space with its high ceiling, exposed brick and slatted wood wall coverings was not necessarily aesthetically unique from other downtown places I have been to, but the addition of railroad accoutrements throughout and a cool toy train circling high above brought a smile to my face.
The menu was full of the usual Midwest continental dishes one might expect: steaks, barbecued ribs, fish and broasted chicken. Prime rib is available daily, and seafood specials are offered on weekends.
The bacon-wrapped filet and half-pound of snow crab legs was one of those specials. The filet could not have been better. It had melted garlic butter pooling inside the edges of the crisped bacon and a pink, juicy center. But the real stars were the four big crab legs, which were moist and succulent without an ounce of dried-up or cooked-away bits that steamed legs always seem to have in their nooks and crannies. They were better than many for which I have paid twice as much.
Another seafood find was the shrimp sauté, available daily. It featured five plump, tender jumbo shrimp served over orzo pasta with feta cheese and garlic-basil butter. The butter sauce and feta that melted into it from the large cubes dotting this dish formed a thick, rich, creamy sauce for the orzo, making it almost a risotto. The basil was lightly sprinkled throughout to give it a little flair.
All of the appetizers I tried proved to be winners. The loaded french fries were sort of a nachos-meets-spuds concoction of thin, crispy and not-at-all-greasy fries covered with seasoned ground beef, chopped red and white onion, green peppers and cheese. The peppers were not as finely chopped as the onions and really popped with flavor. The salsa and sour cream were the perfect condiments. It was hard to stop eating and was the kind of appetizer I would be in favor of seeing on more menus.
The chili came highly recommended by my waitress, and it lived up to the billing. It was seasoned just to the point of being considered spicy but still mild. It had big hunks of ground beef and tomato, along with kidney beans, and was topped with cheese and red onion. The tomato and potato soups were decent, but not as good as the chili. The potato took second-place honors thanks to its sweet, skin-on red potatoes and touch of dill.
North Side Grille also offers homemade macaroni and pasta salads. The macaroni was straightforward with a sweet, pickle-spiked dressing that was sort of pasty, but still tasty. The pasta salad was made with tri-colored bow-tie noodles, had bits of black olive and crunchy celery and was enveloped in a potent ranch dressing. The dinner salad was pretty basic – bacon bits, tomato, red onion and cheese over iceberg lettuce – but what lifted it above the macaroni and pasta versions were the tasty pair of little parmesan-dusted, herby hush puppies that accompanied it.
The homemade cobblers – peach and apple – were the perfect tummy-warming endings to my visits to North Side, and I could not pick a favorite. Both came in tiny crocks and had soft, crumbly crusts that were more like biscuits than pie dough. The apple had just a touch of cinnamon. The pumpkin cheesecake and Ho-Ho cake, which I was told came from All Occasions Cakery on Indiana 9, were also delightful. If you love the Hostess classic, the Ho-Ho cake will not disappoint with its four layers of rich chocolate cake sandwiching light whipped cream and its dark, super sweet chocolate icing.
The misses at North Side Grille were minor.
The prime rib French dip sandwich had thinly sliced meat that was nicely seared on the grill and was served on a buttered and toasted roll with either fresh horseradish or a horseradish sauce. The dark au jus that accompanied it, however, was way too salty and I stopped dipping after one bite. I was told that the jus is made from a powdered mix, which is a shame considering they offer prime rib daily and should have plenty of drippings to make it fresh. The broiled cod also was a tad salty, but its biggest problem was that it was dry and even a dip in melted butter didn’t seem to help.
The folks who waited on me were pleasant and quite helpful when it came to suggesting items, but there was a bit of a wait for main courses on the two nights I visited – both of which were on the weekend when the place was packed. It was also extremely noisy and borderline crowded in the back family section, which has a lower ceiling and about two too many tables and booths.
Restaurant: North Side Grille
Address: 116 W. Van Buren St., Columbia City
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol served: Full bar
Credit cards accepted: Yes
Menu: Loaded fries ($5.95), soup ($1.95 cup; $2.95 bowl), filet and crab ($21.95), shrimp sauté ($12.95), broiled cod ($10.95), prime rib sandwich ($6.95)
Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).