You only get one chance to make a first impression, and Steve's Restaurant and Bar nailed it. My inaugural encounter with the East Nashville eatery was in the form of a single barbecued rib, served on a disposable dish, at a large-scale catered event. It was a pitch-perfect piece of pig, carrying succulent meat laced with smoke and lacquered with sweet-and-tangy glaze made from the drippings of the smoked slabs. The lean pork clung to the bone with perky resilience, concealing a flirty tinge of pink beneath caramelized bark.
Despite this excellent encounter, it was many months before I found my way to owner John Stevenson's establishment to explore the full menu on site. I can only assume my delay in visiting had something to do with the difficulty in actually locating the year-and-a-half-old establishment, which suffers from low visibility, thanks in part to restrictions on commercial signage. In the days of GPS, we don't usually spend a lot of time discussing navigation, but in the case of Steve's, a short digression is in order: When you get to the vaguely Mediterranean two-story retail-and-business center at the corner of Gallatin and West Eastland, make your way upstairs to the wraparound balcony, then wind all the way around the building — three sides of the rectangle — until the balcony terminates at Steve's sprawling and inviting patio. (Or park in the garage behind the building, on West Eastland, and enter at the rear, by Pad Thai Kitchen.)
When you reach the glass doors, work your way through the patio into the brown-on-brown dining room, appointed with flat-screen TVs for football nights and a performance area for live music. In this masculine atmosphere, the combination of dark-stained wood paneling, leather-brown booths and dim lighting is enough to persuade even the midday crowd that happy hour is just around the corner. Meanwhile, the casual friendly vibe is welcoming to kids and families.
In the spirit of a neighborhood sports bar, Steve's offers a manly repertoire of deep-fried appetizers, barbecue, burgers, thin-crust pizzas, about a dozen beers on draft and as many in bottles, along with a full bar. The recently expanded menu also includes a lengthy list of entrées, including grilled salmon, fried shrimp, crab cakes, fried chicken tenderloin, smoked chicken and Angus filet and rib-eye, as well as a range of soups, salads and pastas. It's an ambitious array that attempts to provide something for everyone. But while Steve's abounds in selection, it lacks consistency, leading us to wonder if perhaps a tighter focus could benefit the dining experience.
On two visits, we found a lot to like about Steve's. In terms of sheer value for money, it would be hard to beat the $14.75 appetizer sampler, which overflowed with chicken wings, ribs, potato skins (with bacon, scallions and cheddar) and a monumental block of deep-fried onion rings, which, we imagine, would be what resulted if a hay baler could harvest a field of bloomin' onions.
Even among such predictable bar snacks as wings, skins and chips and salsa, there were unexpected touches of creativity. A standout among the appetizers, for example, was deep-fried deviled eggs. Dredged in panko breadcrumbs and sizzled to a golden brown, the over-the-top appetizer added welcome counterpoints of crispness and heat to the classic cold picnic staple.
We also enjoyed the crab cakes (available as a starter and an entrée), which contained a refreshingly robust ratio of crab to filler and were ladled with a mildly spicy cream sauce.
While the pizza crust was not made in house, the thin crisp disk was an excellent vehicle for house-made red and white sauces with combinations such as chicken with barbecue sauce and pineapple and artichoke hearts with sun-dried tomatoes and black olives.
Pasta Bolognese was a hearty house-made recipe of penne and ground beef tossed in thick dark-red marinara, which made for a convenient takeout meal.
There was, however, much room for improvement. Barbecue chicken on a Kaiser roll was a bountiful sandwich with a generous portion of tender pulled meat, but it was over-sauced for our taste, and the accompanying shoestring fries arrived limp. Meanwhile, Cajun pasta with shrimp was the kind of cream-coated comfort food that seduces you with its velvety mantle only to punish you minutes later with the digestive repercussions of oily overindulgence.
For all of Steve's cream- and cheese-laden and deep-fried fare, there was a laudable lighter side. Among the highlights was a recently introduced salad of fluffy spinach and lettuces tossed with pink onions, strawberries and mandarin orange slices and topped with scallops wrapped in bacon. Unfortunately, the undercooked bacon was a texture more akin to what the overcooked scallops should have been, and vice versa, but that detail of execution will likely get resolved as the recent menu overhaul gets fine-tuned.
Now, what about those remarkable ribs that lured us to Steve's in the first place? Alas, they were a little more gray and subdued when we ordered them in-house, as if the slab had been sitting around for a while losing its luster. But when I carried the leftovers home and reheated them — never a nice thing to do food — they held up extremely well under the circumstances. You might even say they made a strong second impression.
Steve's opens at 11 a.m. Monday through Friday and at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Brunch is available on weekends.