Critic's star breakdown
- Food: 4 stars (out of five)
- Service: 3
- Atmosphere: 3.5
- Overall: 3.5
Next to a good slice of pizza, there's not much I enjoy more than a thick, juicy hamburger. So when I learned that Niceley's Tavern specializes in burgers — they tout the fact that they use locally grown Black Angus beef that's grass-fed and hormone-free — I took the bull by the horns and led The Grub Spouse and The Grub Sprout to the restaurant/bar. It's on White Avenue, just a block off Cumberland, and offers plenty of free parking to customers.
When we walked in, there was one other table of patrons supping in the lower dining area, but there was not an employee to be found. We waited around a moment or two before I started wandering the premises in search of a staffer. Finally, a man (whom I later identified as owner Kevin Niceley) appeared behind the bar, but stood with his back to us for several moments before I finally made our presence known. After all that, we were told to sit wherever we wanted.
He did promptly bring out some drinks and gave us a few minutes to familiarize ourselves with the menu, which tosses out a couple of token salads before moving on to the sandwich fare. You can get a quarter-pound or half-pound burger that comes with lettuce, tomato and onion. Toppings such as grilled onions, different types of cheese, sauteed mushrooms, etc., cost about a dollar extra, per item. There's also a veggie burger for those who aren't as carnivorously minded.
The Spouse got a quarter-pound burger with the basic veggies, while I got a half-pounder with the same toppings but also stuffed with Gouda cheese and crowned with sauteed mushrooms.
The Sprout, who is quite the barbecue lover, ordered The Stewie, a sandwich consisting of pulled pork, grilled peppers, onions, mushrooms and provolone cheese on a roll. You can also get a half-pound pulled pork platter served with trimmings if you prefer to go bunless.
Our food came out within a reasonable amount of time, but I noticed that my burger did not have the sauteed mushrooms on top. Our server brought them out in a side dish a few moments later.
Both burgers were, as I had hoped, very good. They were indeed thick and juicy but not too greasy, and the flavor was spot-on beefy. The stuffed Gouda oozed from the patty's pores, while I noticed that all our buns were uniquely oval-shaped, like footballs. I'm also guessing that's how The Stewie got its name (fist bump to all you "Family Guy" fans).
For sides, The Spouse had a tasty but inconsistently crisp batch of homemade potato chips, I had some decent fries, and The Sprout enjoyed a passable side order of potato salad. For dessert, we split an order of homemade blueberry icebox pie and apple cake. Both were pretty good, although the blueberry pie was noticeably devoid of its main ingredient — the blueberry.
I was disappointed in the service. Once our food arrived, we never saw our server again (evidently, we arrived between shifts), and we were at the end of our meal before a new server showed up to clear plates, fill drinks and get our desserts. Even then, it seemed that it took forever for us to get a check and then a slip to sign, even though there was only one other table competing for the servers' attention.
Too bad I enjoyed the food as much as I did. Between the general vibe of disregard that I sensed and the aging, beer-soaked frat-house ambiance, I would do just as nicely to dine on burgers elsewhere.
For my initial review, it was evident that we had arrived during a shift change, so in the interest of fairness, I decided to pay a repeat visit to Niceley’s and see if our previous experience was a fluke or standard operating procedure.
The Spouse and I returned on a weekend night, waiting to venture out well past a time that we felt any shift changes would be taking place. We were pleased to note that almost immediately upon our entering, a young lady appeared from the bar area, greeted us and escorted us to our choice of tables in either the upper or lower dining areas.
Our server promptly gave us menus and took our drink orders and after heading out to fill them, a young male server working nearby also greeted us and made a point of telling us that they were out of pork that night. (On our last visit, The Sprout had ordered the pork-based Stewie sandwich, and it was quite good.)
I wound up ordering the same thing I did the previous time, a half-pound burger stuffed with Gouda cheese and topped with sautéed mushrooms. Basic lettuce, tomato and onion garnishes are included in the price, but my cheese and veggie toppings cost extra.
For my side item, I chose onion rings over French fries, sweet potato fries, potato salad or cole slaw. The Spouse went with one of the daily specials, the chicken chili, which we were told came with a side item. The Spouse chose French fries.
Several minutes into our wait, our server returned to inform us that they were out of onion rings. I switched my side item to regular French fries. Then when our food came out, The Spouse’s fries were missing. Our server told us that the cook had informed her that the chili special did not come with a side, so it was not served.
I once again enjoyed eating the burger, and The Spouse’s chili was also pretty good. When we were finished, we asked about dessert (we had enjoyed the one we had last time), but our server told us that no dessert was available that night because “someone forgot to thaw it out.”
So while I feel Niceley’s ably redeemed itself in terms of staff contact and presence, there were multiple kitchen-supply problems on this evening: A) out of pork, B) out of onion rings and C) out of dessert, not to mention the ol’ French fry switcheroo.
If Niceley’s could manage to hit on all cylinders, I think they could have a decent product to offer the public, but in my opinion, the inconsistencies of this operation discourage me from paying them a third visit.
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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