The first time I dropped by Family Meal, chef Bryan Voltaggio’s upscale retro diner, I didn’t even wait until I’d polished off a plate of fried chicken to call a friend and tell him that he needed to get his you-know-what up to Frederick—that this dish by itself was reason to make the hour drive from DC.
The chicken is brined in pickle juice, then lightly breaded before being fried in a cast-iron skillet. What it sacrifices in crunch it makes up for with breast meat so moist that even those of us who swear by dark meat can hardly resist it. And its adornments are just about perfect—a warm buttermilk biscuit, tangy spears of pickled okra and beans, and a cup of hot-and-sweet sauce for dunking.
I was nearly as taken with Voltaggio’s ingenious twist on pot pies. Imagine a plumper Chicken McNugget coated in panko and fried in fresh, hot oil. Bite into the salty crust and out spills a warm, creamy gravy studded with peas and carrots.
Dessert was a milkshake of hand-cranked mint/chocolate-chip ice cream capped with a toasted marshmallow and generously spiked with Buffalo Trace, a bourbon superior to what many restaurants assign to their mixed drinks.
All this and a retro, glass-walled design that looks as if Frank Lloyd Wright had tried his hand at IHOP? With servers roving the floor in gray Chuck Taylors? I walked out of that late-afternoon lunch with the happy, floating sensation you get when a restaurant leaves you feeling not simply looked after but somehow embraced.
A week later I returned for dinner, and what had seemed a clever, minimalist piece of adaptive reuse in the daytime—the restaurant is in a former Nissan dealership—felt chilly (literally: I asked that the heat be turned up) and cheerless when the sun went down. From the parking lot, the restaurant at night exudes the lonely air of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.”
My initial infatuation had by this time faded a little, and I began to drill deeper into the menu. The more I ordered, though, the more I pined for those same three dishes from lunch.
In the parlance of Facebook, I went from the confident certainties of “in a relationship” to the doubt-haunted vagueness of “it’s complicated.”
Voltaggio has conceived of Family Meal as a restaurant to serve a variety of needs, and while that’s to his great credit as a Frederick native who recognizes the soul-pinching effects of a down economy, it’s also somewhat to his detriment as a chef hoping to create a brand and an empire. Variety and eclecticism too often trump mastery.
You can regard Family Meal as a short-order kitchen and chow on a stack of pancakes and eggs for dinner. You can go for a burger (a good one, hand-ground and topped with cheddar and crisp strips of bacon) or a generous BLT whose B is actually PB—pork belly, not fried but braised and tasting, oddly, of ham. It’s a generous sandwich—too generous; mine fell apart.
You can treat Family Meal as an alternative to the likes of Applebee’s and T.G.I. Friday’s, cherry-picking among the many values on the menu—that fried-chicken meal, for example, goes for just $14, and among the options on the good kids’ menu is a ceramic TV tray of spaghetti and meatballs sauced with a fresh-tasting marinara.
One night my mother made a meal out of a soup (matzo ball) and a sandwich (pulled pork shoulder, smoked out back)—a pairing that might not please the rabbinate and likely would perplex barbecue traditionalists but sort of pleased her. The sandwich was better than the soup, which lacked the richness of schmaltz and featured a flat-tasting, seemingly saltless matzo ball.
Voltaggio also intends for you to come for the sort of casual but cheffy meal that Michel Richard has made the hallmark of his bistro, Central. This, unfortunately, is where Family Meal falls short. Which means it also falls short of its goal of being a destination restaurant that can pull in crowds from an hour or more away.
A starter of frogs’ legs coated in a lightly spicy curry and garnished with thin slices of watermelon radish and sprouts—an appetizer—wouldn’t have been out of place at Voltaggio’s fine-dining restaurant, Volt. But the dish worked only if you speared each of these elements onto the fork at the same time, and even then the payoff was modest. Shrimp and grits looked nearly as good—a mound of soft grits surmounted by grilled, head-on shrimp and given a hearty ladling of gravy. It didn’t lack for richness or spice, but the flavors were oddly muted and, for a dish that costs $22, far from the ideal of offhand precision.
Desserts are disappointing. The simple stuff—a Smith Island cake, for instance—isn’t as lovingly made or abundantly portioned as you’d expect of a place that aims to one-up a traditional diner. And a recent high-minded addition to the menu, a play on coffee and doughnuts pairing chocolate doughnut holes and hazelnut-coffee ice cream, refined all the fun out of things.
The staff is well-meaning and friendly but sometimes clueless about the menu (and strangely unenthusiastic when asked to recommend dishes). I suspect management hasn’t impressed on its servers the idea that Family Meal is more than a fresh interpretation of a diner and that a certain crispness and knowledge ought to accompany a meal that can run $80 for two.
I admire Voltaggio’s vision of a restaurant that bids to serve multiple and disparate constituencies, and perhaps in time he’ll better integrate or streamline his operations. Until then, I can’t see making the trip north more than occasionally. Unless it involves that fabulous fried chicken and that wonderfully creamy, boozy milkshake.
This article appears in the January 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.