Bel Air Grill
104 Keller Lane, Maryville
Critic's star breakdown
- Food: 4 stars (out of five)
- Service: 4
- Atmosphere: 3.5
- Overall: 4
This one's for all you Blount County folks who missed Bel Air Grill after it flew the coupe a few years ago. The loosely '50s-themed, diner-style restaurant is back, albeit under different ownership and in a new location, in the former T.G.I. Friday's in Maryville. The Grub Spouse and I had long been fans of the brand, which once boasted a number of locations throughout East Tennessee. So after giving this latest incarnation a couple of weeks to work out the kinks, we stopped in, Grub Sprout in the rumble seat, to see what was for dinner.
Evidently, two weeks wasn't long enough to let that initial new-restaurant euphoria subside. Despite it being a weeknight, there were lines out the door and a 35-minute wait. But after greeting the life-size, fiberglass Elvis Presley statue at the front entrance, we stepped inside anyway and took advantage of the wait time to do some pre-scouting of the laminated menus.
If memory serves, the lineup appears to have undergone few changes over the years, and if your tastes do not eschew the culinary miracles of the deep fryer, then you should have no trouble staking (or steaking) out a match for your taste buds.
We started with one of our old Bel Air faves, the fried mushrooms, as an appetizer. Other openers include cheese sticks, fried pickles, sliders, chicken tenders and onion rings. Fortunately, the 'shrooms were just as we remembered them — plump, hot and liable to propel grease like an ink-squirting squid when you bite into them. As usual, we decided to divide and conquer when it came to the rest of the menu. The Sprout ordered the chicken teriyaki, passing over other poultry and seafood entrees like Rocky Top Chicken, a shrimp platter, grilled salmon and fried catfish. Chicken teriyaki comes with rice, and The Sprout ordered a loaded spud as his allotted side.
The Spouse chose Mama's Meatloaf from the Favorites section, which also offers a pork chop dinner and country-fried steak. The loaf is served with mashed potatoes and either green beans or steamed veggies.
I had to go burger all the way, although instead of niche creations like the pimento, bean, Cajun or Southwest burgers, I kept things traditional with the '57 Convertible, which is topped with sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions and choice of cheese (I went with Monterey Jack).
One of my few disappointments was in the atmosphere. Little has been done in the wake of Friday's departure to give the space that wonderful neon-and-checkerboard '50s atmosphere that the previous Bel Air Grill had exuded. The new Bel Air still looks like an old Friday's, but instead of Friday's junk, there's a token effort at retro '50s-era signage on the walls.
The service, however, exceeded my dubious expectations, given how crowded the restaurant was. But our orders were prepared and served within a reasonable time frame, and our server stayed on top of our many refill, napkin-fetching and plate-clearing needs.
The food was also faithful to the Bel Air Grill tradition — hearty and satisfying if not necessarily friendly to one's cholesterol levels. The burger especially stood out, with its thick, freshly made patty, generous toppings and seasoned homemade fries. However, the teriyaki chicken was likewise plump, juicy and flavorful, and the meatloaf was a substantially pleasing throwback.
We finished with hand-spun chocolate shakes and a homemade Oreo cake that sent us out the doors buzzing, not just on sugar but also on the fact that a favorite area restaurant seems to have come back to the future in classic style.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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