Who doesn't love the friendly neighborhood luncheonette? Smiling servers, homey surroundings and comfort food: breakfasts big enough to make a grown man weep, available all day long, and an array of meat and bread combinations, hot and cold, open-faced or closed -- all at absurdly low prices.
Plus, if the neighborhood in question is Bellevue, you get vibrant street life and nifty shops just outside the storefront windows. This suite of traits has built a loyal following for Joe's Rusty Nail, a storefront diner named after -- what else -- a rusty spike that owner Joe Elbicki found in the wall when he took the place over.
Although friends had raved about the breakfasts, it was the dinner menu in Joe's window that beckoned us. A near-perfect distillation of Jason's all-American desires, it includes hot meatloaf, burgers, open-faced turkey and roast beef, plus, remarkably, an entire section dedicated to Devonshires, sandwiches inspired by that Pittsburgh original, turkey on toast with cheddar sauce. If the menu included some suspiciously upscale items -- filet at a diner? -- the bulk of the offerings seemed to holler "comfort food."
The appetizer platter started us out right. Four treats from the fryer -- planks of lightly battered zucchini, mozzarella sticks, crispy wings and Buffalo chicken fingers -- revealed a gift for deep-frying in Joe's kitchen. A platter loaded with cheesy potato skins, topped with big chunks of fresh-fried bacon, also satisfied.
Spaghetti and meatballs, long since assimilated into American cuisine, featured a respectable tomato sauce, not bright-tasting but well-balanced. Alas, a tough meatball, as if made from ground beef without breadcrumbs, herbs or cheese, struck the first off note of the evening.
It was quickly followed by Jason's country pork chops with gravy on a bed of bread dressing. The gravy was far too salty to have any other notable flavor, and the dressing was damp and bland. Worst of all, one of the boneless pork chops, beneath its barely crisp breading, was full of gristle. The green beans and tomato side dish sounded good, but was another letdown. Crisp beans that nonetheless lacked fresh flavor made an awkward pairing with mushy tomatoes.
Equally unsatisfying was the Mermaid -- one of the Devonshires -- ordered by Angelique. This variation on the turkey classic consisted of a crabcake on white Texas toast with cheese sauce. But the crabcake was formed of paltry shreds, not lumps, of meat and tasted more of generic seafood than of sweet, succulent crab. The bright yellow cheese was reminiscent of nacho sauce and bore no relation to the sharp, cheddary concoction that is the crowning glory of Devonshires. At least the onion rings that surrounded the dish were up to the high standards of the kitchen's excellent fryer.
As disappointing as our meal was, the staff was pleasant and friendly. They were familiar enough with their customers to spot us as first-timers, yet made us feel right at home. Sadly, we won't be returning for another dinner.