Martin's Downtown Bar & Grill
Foosball players are the real wooden deal at Martin’s in Downtown Roanoke.
We’ve all been to restaurants that have live music. It’s pretty easy to push tables six to nine against the wall and let a couple of kids with cheap acoustic guitars play “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Hotel California” all night. And that can be fun.
But there’s another class of place, where you can tell that the whole establishment is about the music from the ground up. Like the first thing the owner saw in his mind – even before the kitchen, the bar and the neurotic breakdown from lack of sleep – was the stage.
Martin’s Downtown Bar and Grill on First Street in Roanoke is one of these places. There’s nothing unwelcoming or uncomfortable about the big, open room, but from the sound board to the stage, it’s obviously a room that was built to have bands in it.
Having said that, they’re clearly doing something right in the kitchen as well. On a recent visit, as the room filled and the band tuned, I decided to check out their version of the venerable chicken wing, and was heartened to see that there was no breading there to get in my way – a good sign indeed. Ricky the bartender steered me toward the just plain Buffalo, grilled crispy and tasty even in an unadorned state, (sauces are served on the side, and I had been tempted by the apricothabañero), with a little bleu cheese. He did not steer me wrong. Plenty of heat, but not just about the sadism.
Another pleasant surprise on the appetizer menu was the smoked trout. Served with a light horseradish sauce, diced red onion, crispy French-bread melba toast, arugula, sharp goat cheese, and a fruit compote, it could be easy to lose the fish in all the competing flavors that come with it, and that would be a shame. Smoky and fresh-tasting, light and not too fishy. It’s an ambitious dish, and might benefit from a bit of paring back on the extras.
Ricky had done such a good job recommending the wing sauce, I took his advice on dinner as well and ordered the St. Louis-style ribs, which the menu boasts win awards “every year” at the Big Lick Blues Rib Cook-off . And I can see why. Tender without being mushy, and meaty enough that a half rack is really enough (but don’t let that stop you from getting the full rack; they ain’t bad the next day either), I chose the tangy Carolina sauce over the “traditional” barbecue sauce.
My wife, whom I dragged out into the cold despite threats of physical violence, opted for the pasta bar, which isn’t actually a place, but more of a create-your-own-dish option system. Choose a pasta, a sauce and some stuff to add in, and voila, you’re at the pasta bar. She got the three-cheese ravioli with pomodoro sauce and tossed in some shrimp and crab. She confessed that it seemed like they were holding out in the shrimp department, but said the ravioli were delicious and thoroughly cheesy, while the sauce was hearty and flavorful, if a bit heavier than she expected.
Dinner was over, and so was the sound-check. So we turned in our seats to check out the band, and it would be hard to miss them. Despite it’s being a pretty big room, there’s hardly a spot that doesn’t feature a good view of the corner dominated by the stage. The
act the night we went was the Matt Horn Band, and I was thinking what a great name for a musician. Little did I know. Horn covered the lead vocals as well as doing some very cool stuff with the trumpet. They had a nice tight rhythm going, with an oddly scholarly yet funky bassist, and some really powerful soul and R&B happening. Having fun and totally unselfconscious; if you were in that room and you weren’t moving, you need to consult a physician. There was a great alchemy happening between the band and the crowd, and the overall vibe was just teeming with life and excitement. It all reminded us that winter does end and spring is just around the corner.
Martin’s Downtown Bar & Grill. 413 1st St., SW. Roanoke. 597-7843.