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The goal of the menu at Table 50 is to have "varied, high-quality ingredients executed very well and originally."
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Co-owner Eric DiLauro found this painting of Paul Newman as Cool Hand Luke in Colorado, near Vail, and brought it back for the walls of Table 50.
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Table 50 shares not only a dark-wood decor tie to Frankie Rowland's, but also the genesis of its name.
I hadn’t eaten at Table 50 since – well, since before it was Table 50 – and my first visit turned out to be a night of pleasant surprises. First off, my waiter wound up being an old client of mine from my long-gone bartending days.
Wade Peters is one of the most personable waiters I’ve met in my time eating and working in restaurants. Quick to laugh with you, laugh at you, sit at your table, and talk you into ordering a bottle of wine that you aren’t really in the mood for but wind up enjoying immensely anyway.
We had a nice table backed up against the exposed brick at one end of the dining room from which to watch the action around us, and at first, we felt like we had crashed a private party. With the exception of maybe two other parties, everyone else seemed to know each other. Guests were moving from one table to another, laughing and hailing friends, and doubtlessly making it hard for the servers to keep the drink orders straight.
But when I asked Peters what the occasion was, he just shrugged, beamed around at the room, and answered, “Friday.” That kind of festive atmosphere can be its own excuse to celebrate, and it was a joy to sit under the black, pressed-tin ceilings and watch.
When we sat down, a member of the staff asked us our water preference. I was just about to answer “A hundred and four degrees, plenty of Mr. Bubble, and with a yellow rubber ducky,” when she explained that she meant drinking water.
“Bottled sparkling, bottled still, or tap water.”
It felt like a good omen that there were that many options available, and as my water bubbled away, I opened the menu to take a look around. The food reflects a number of American classic styles – crab cakes, Low Country fare, fish, steak and chicken dishes. But there are upscale European elements as well, such as the beurre blanc served with the pan-seared crab cakes or the fire-roasted corn polenta cake that accompanies the Carolina grouper.
Peters made the evening’s special sound a cut above, and so I went with that – a generous ribeye served with seared green beans, seasoned mashed potatoes, and a Maytag bleu cheese sauce.
A little while after Peters left with our order (long enough to know it was being made especially for us, but not so long that the people-watching got boring), he came back with my mussels and my wife’s duck confit. The mussels transfixed me, very tender and served in a pool of buttery saffron and white wine sauce. The chef must have known that the sauce was good enough to want to keep going after the shellfish were gone, so the dish was topped with a pair of crispy baguette rounds topped with a bit of cheese. I looked up after a few moments of almost trance-like concentration, and asked my wife how her duck was. “Yum,” the English major replied.
My fork descended on her plate like a shiny little Viking, and I pillaged myself a taste. Moist and smoky, but not over-seasoned, it would have been hard to improve on this bird. It came plated with a cranberry and port reduction, the sweet and tart flavor of which was a nice counterpoint to the heady flavor of the duck.
After our appetizers, we progressed to a pair of imaginative salads. She had ordered a spinach and balsamic vinaigrette salad with sliced pears, bleu cheese and walnuts, which suffered only from the pears being a tad too unripe for their flavor to really shine through. I had absolutely zero complaints about my salad, though, which featured ultra-thin julienned strips of apple, pecan pralines and dried cherries. It was crowned with a warm lump of baked goat cheese, and the sour cheese and contrasting temperatures really made the sweeter ingredients pop.
It almost seemed orchestrated when our entrees arrived just at the moment that the unarranged party around us was reaching its crescendo. A couple of grande dames were at the next table hugging and giggling like schoolgirls… We could barely hear Peters when he came sailing through the warm, welcoming chaos with our entrees raving about the Malbec he had recommended.
Not that we were all that interested in what he had to say at that point; there was meat on the table. She got the Colorado rack of lamb (this had been what I was going to order before Peters sold me on the special), which came with a truffled honey polenta and Brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon and cranberries. Remember how I mentioned surprises? Well, you’d expect the lamb to be delicious (it was, lightly seasoned so that the natural flavor of the meat wasn’t drowned out) and the bacon to be sinfully tasty (man, when is bacon not? Bacon is like a culinary cheat-code; it opens any door), but if you grew up like I did, Brussels sprouts are something to be politely refused/hidden under your coffee cup/given to a foolish dog/shunned like a drunken Quaker. But these were just fantastic. They had none of the hellish sulfur smell that my aunt’s Brussels sprouts always seemed to have. And yeah, maybe they weren’t the most wonderful thing that happened to us that night (see: duck confit). But nonetheless, when you compare what they tasted like with what we thought they were going to taste like, they were pretty darned good. By contrast, the polenta was a bit mild for the stronger flavors on the plate, but something had to be the least fabulous instrument in that orchestra.
As for my ribeye, the mashed potatoes and green beans were very good, but the steak and the bleu cheese sauce were showstoppers. The charred character of the marbling in the beef juxtaposed with the spicy wine and the pungent sauce were just shy of overpowering. This was love on a plate.
Another surprise: I asked Peters what was in the amazing sauce that the steak was plated with and he simply said, “Bleu cheese melted in heavy cream.” The complexity of the flavor had made me expect that it was some esoteric, 10-step French sauce that had an entire wing of a culinary school in Provence dedicated to it. Nope. Cheese and cream. Kaboom!
As we were slowly losing our valiant struggle to clean our plates, the dining room was starting to calm down. Most of the regulars were paying up and it suddenly became apparent that the management had actually put some music on the stereo that night. And as we were sheepishly asking Peters if he’d be kind enough to let us take our dessert home (a tart and sweet mango cheesecake and a chocolate mousse torte with raspberry coulis and toffee chips), an old friend of mine came in with six or eight girls to celebrate her upcoming nuptials. And funnily enough, they had come because of the torte.
As bacchanalian as dinner had been, it takes a daylight trip to Table 50 to really appreciate the value of its location. Waiting for lunch to arrive, we had a bit of time to enjoy the sunlit people-watching and bustling vibe that only the Roanoke Market has. Business folk, young families, bohemian granola types, skateboarding kids, non-skateboarding kids that had skateboards anyway, and all of the people that make up the tapestry that is our town.
We tore our attention away from the show to enjoy a bowl of crab bisque (actually, since she had ordered it, I enjoyed it while she enjoyed working to keep me out of it). Rich and creamy, with substantial chunks of crab meat, this and a bit of bread would make a fine meal in and of itself. It came with oyster crackers that I suppose were de rigueur, but when it comes down to it, were sort of plebian next to that lavish soup.
The el Fidel Cuban sandwich was crispy and substantial, but I’ll confess I’ve been spoiled by the Cubans that I used to get from Juan at Paradiso in the Market Building before the renovation took its toll on the restaurants there. It’s not fair to compare anybody else to this perfection on larded bread. This one was a good sandwich, but you’ll never replace your first love.
The angus burger was maybe a jot better, for my money. A hearty portion of flavorful beef without any unneeded frippery; just cheddar, lettuce, onion, and mayonnaise. Meat, American Style. If you’ve got a good burger, why reinvent the wheel? Interestingly, I’d have to say that the standout at lunch that day was the side of collard greens. Smoky and rich, not overdone and rife with chunks of pork, this was another example of a simple side veg that could have been neglected by the chef, but instead was coached and coaxed and dragged onto center stage.
Service at lunchtime was efficient and friendly, but I can’t deny that the few minor glitches we experienced happened then. I’ll not overstate the minor issues we saw; lunch is by definition less formal, and we enjoyed our visit and the hospitality. We left happy and fuelled up and raring to go for some eclectic shopping and for supporting entirely too many local businesses as the afternoon progressed.
To get an idea of what regular customers think about Table 50, I did a little lurking on their Facebook page. I immediately noticed a posting on their wall from a guy named Gene Brady, Jr.: “Great dinner last night. The food was exceptional and the service perfect. Thank you, Jordan! You make one hell of a Margarita…” I figured this guy wouldn’t mind sharing his thoughts, so I reached out to him online.
“All I know is it’s our favorite place to go. Whenever we’re having any kind of a celebration; anniversary, birthday, anything special, that’s where we go. We like to eat downtown a lot, but Table 50 just seems to have the best atmosphere, the best wait staff, the best bar staff of any restaurant we’ve ever eaten at downtown.”
But what about the food?
“The food! The food is just unbelievable. If you go away from there hungry, there’s something wrong with you. Great Caesar salad. Great Caesar salad, and always great specials.”
Co-owners Michael Caudill and Eric DiLauro were both kind enough to sit down on a recent Saturday afternoon to discuss their vision for the restaurant, their views about Roanoke, and some of their plans for the future. As the restaurant began to fill up, they seemed so much more relaxed and comfortable than most of the restaurant owners I’ve met.
DiLauro’s first restaurant job was right across the street at the space that’s now 310 Rosemont, at Anthony’s Italian Restaurant – his father’s place, where he worked some time back in the dim past that is the 1980s. After moving away and managing restaurants on the West Coast, he “came back to Roanoke and hooked up with Al Pollard and Roger Neel to create Frankie Rowland’s and help them open that.
“I was GM there for five years,” he says.
Caudill came on board a year later (both had previously worked at Corned Beef & Co., another Roanoke institution captained by Pollard and Neel). Before much time passed, the two seemed to have decided that they could work well enough together to open their own place.
They scouted the location, waited for it to be available, and then opened on D-Day of ’06.
When I asked them about their vision, I was impressed with the way they were able to finish each other’s sentences. At least as regards the big-picture things about their restaurant, these guys are in full accord.
DiLauro: “Mike and I, like most people in the Roanoke Valley, have traveled to a lot of places. Most cities have restaurants that are chef-owned, that have a nice casual feel to them, but there’s a strong emphasis on the food – the execution and the quality. Roanoke, at the time, I really didn’t think there was a whole lot of that. And that was our goal: to create a menu that had varied, high-quality ingredients executed very well and original.” When DiLauro paused, Caudill jumped right in:
“With emphasis obviously being on a strong level of service. It doesn’t matter how good the food is if the person isn’t representing you out front.”
“I personally think the Roanoke Valley has come a long way in the past 10 or 15 years,” DiLauro tells me. “Not only restaurants, but in a lot of ways. And I think what we’re trying to do is be a part of that. Because if you’re not providing something that’s going to make a better quality of life for everyone around you…” Caudill takes over: “Then what’s the point?”
DiLauro adds: “It’s part of building the community.”
Asked about the origin of the name, both owners laugh, as if at a well-loved inside joke. “We get asked that all the time,” Caudill says.
Adds DiLauro: “When we first opened Frankie’s, we had a round table in the back of the dining room which was table 50, and it was a very, very popular table. People would almost come to fisticuffs over getting that table.
“All the local regulars, when they made a reservation, expected to get that table. When we were trying to come up with a name for this place, my girlfriend said, ‘Why don’t you name it Table 50?’” They consider it an homage to the late Al Pollard, the well-known and affable Roanoke restaurateur who died in 2006, and to their time working for him at Corned Beef and Frankie Rowland’s.
“Because right after that,” Caudill says, “Al passed away. So then it really hit home. … If Table 50 at Frankie Rowland’s was considered the premier table, we wanted people to look at this place like every table is special.”
Honoring Your Roots
Caudill and DiLauro characterize their food as progressive American with local ingredients, classic techniques, and a lot of French influence, and they rave about the diversity of elements that they bring to their tables. Local ingredients, when they can get them. Caudill’s training at the Culinary Institute of America is never far from the surface. A genuine affinity for the different cuisines of the United States. They both tout their offerings with a strong enthusiasm and the confidence that comes from shepherding a restaurant through five prosperous years in the midst of a down economy.
Table 50 has entered into a deal with Roanoke developer Ed Walker to open a new restaurant and bar in the Patrick Henry Hotel, which Walker is developing into condominiums. Tentatively named First and Sixth, (Patrick Henry was the Commonwealth’s first and sixth post-revolution governor), the new venture promises to carry over Table 50’s commitment to quality ingredients prepared well in a casual environment.
Table 50: The Info
Type of food: Progressive American Cuisine
Dinner entrée price range: $22-$30
Location: 309 Market Street
Dress code: There isn’t one, but come on, don’t be such a schlemiel. You’ll see people in jackets and ties, and you’ll see dudes in shorts and a wifebeater. Aim high.
• Diverse and creative menu conceived and implemented with skill.
• Excellent service at dinner.
• A loyal and welcoming coterie of regulars that are simultaneously close-knit and accepting of others.
Could use a bit of improvement:
• Lunchtime service lacking in consistent excellence.
• Find Juan and get him to torque up the Cuban sandwich!