It was a guilty pleasure, much like hitting the festival food booth with the deep-fried cheese or vegetables or candy bars or whatever else they are battering and frying.
The West End Restaurant in Decatur wasnt frying Snickers bars, but the tasty batter coating fish, pork tenderloins, chicken and onion rings there would have probably been great on one.
With a more than 125-year history, this eatery doesnt make any apologies for a menu heavy on artery-clogging favorites. There are some lighter options, but, really, this is the kind of place you go to indulge.
The batter surprised me because of its inherit flavor. Where most coatings are just there to add crunch, the West Ends was a bit salty and a little sweet, and it just made me want to keep reaching for more.
The fried chicken was brilliant – crunchy outside and oh so juicy inside – and the fish was even better. The flaky moist Icelandic cod fillets encased in that batter were so rich and flavorful they almost seemed buttery. The batter also put a different spin on the Hoosier staple pork tenderloin. Most Indiana tenderloins are marked by a gritty, crunchy breading, but this batter did what cracker crumbs cant. It encased that lean cut of pork, making it impossible to dry out.
But easily the most impressive deep fried treats I had at West End were the onion rings. I have been asked several times who has the best onion rings in the area and I have never had a good answer until now. The thick cut, sweet white onions just melted in my mouth. They were a little greasy – pretty much all of the deep-fried items were – but they alone were worth the trip to Decatur.
When choosing a side to go with the deep-fried goodies, salad is the way to go, but not the green leafy kind. The regular house salad was as boring as it gets, but the other salads – macaroni, kidney bean, potato and both creamy and vinegar slaw – were all made from scratch.
The beans in the kidney bean salad were tender, the diced cucumber added crunch and the diced pickles were very sweet. The shell macaroni salad had the same ingredients, which also included diced onion, and the same creamy, runny mayonnaise base with just a hint of yellow I assumed came from mustard. The chopped green cabbage and carrot in the sweet vinegar slaw was crisp and it was dotted with celery seed, which gave it some zing.
Feeling guilty about all the fried stuff, I ordered the slaw with the grilled whitefish. The square fillets of this were topped with breadcrumbs and it was seared well until almost black on the flat top griddle. It was a bit salty on its own and I liked it much better with a smear of sweet tartar sauce. Overall, it was just OK.
As was the 8-ounce rib-eye. It was handled well – cooked to the right temperature and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper on the flat top – and was pretty tender. It would have been great under a couple of eggs for breakfast, but wasnt a better choice than the fish or chicken for dinner.
Like the salads, the soups were from scratch. The beef noodle was straightforward with linguini noodles in a light beef broth with shredded roast beef and a little onion. The white chili was good, but not really what I would call chili. It had a thin broth with stringy pulled chicken, white beans, green peppers, onion and cilantro, and was more like a tortilla soup with beans instead of tortilla, than a thick, hearty chili. I ordered the ham and bean soup during one visit, too, but my server never brought it.
The same server had to be asked twice for refills and never removed a dirty plate from the table. During my second visit, however, the service was impeccable.
The atmosphere was great in the front room, in which only adults are allowed. The restaurant recently stripped off the paneling to expose the original brick on the walls; it is spacious and included an old-fashioned counter. The busier back family room is tiny and its tables are cramped a bit. It still has paneling on half of the walls, but the tables, carpet, wallpaper and ceiling tiles were spotless.
After enjoying the homemade soups and salads, I had high hopes for the pies, which the specials board said were baked fresh daily. Baked fresh does not mean made fresh, however, as all of them were brought in frozen.
The coconut crumb was pretty good – kind of a mix between coconut cream pie and an oatmeal cookie – and was better than the other fruit pies which were mostly gel filling. I also liked the seven-layer pie, which featured – as far as I could decipher – chocolate chunks, butterscotch chips, walnuts and coconut among its layers.
Hmm, maybe they would have been better battered and deep fried.
Restaurant: West End
Address: 702 W. Monroe St., Decatur
Hours: 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Smoking status: None
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Soup ($2.35), rib-eye ($12.99), breaded tenderloin ($7.99 for 4-ounce; $9.99 for 8-ounce), fried chicken ($7.89 for three pieces; $6.75 for two), pork chops ($6.99), grilled fish ($9.99); pie ($2.35)
Food: * 1/2 (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).