Just when it seems the city would drown in a sea of numbingly boring casualized menus, along comes Common House to turn the tide. Maybe the appeal lies in their delightfully unpretentious name. Or maybe it's the logo: the frame of a house with smoke billowing from the chimney. After our oh-so-fun decade of conspicuous consumption with gadzillion dollar restaurant upfits and $40 steaks, a solid, satisfying neighborhood restaurant seems appropriate -- and, more importantly, affordable.
The long, roomy, revamped space with the entrance at the back, the side with the parking lot, is appointed with black and white photography, a long neighborly bar up front, and an enormous private room off to one side with a 65-inch television over a fireplace which stays lit even though the doors to the patio along the front are open.
For co-owner Andy Robinson, the 100-seat Common House is his first venture. However, co-owners Ryan Looney and Mike Fisher are experienced in the Charlotte bar business. They were among the partners in the now defunct Grand Central on Tryon, while Looney is in the group that owns Dixie Tavern.
The Common House menu is dotted with fashionable examples of farmhouse cuisine -- the current stop of the wheel of trendy-restaurant fortune. In the kitchen is Chef Emily Hahn, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute. Hahn's enthusiastic cooking is informed by her coastal tenure: low country Southern, yet high style. Hahn comes to the Common House after stints in the kitchens of Charleston, including Fig, where she worked with Robinson.
Not surprisingly, Common House's menu is neither long nor tedious, but straightforward and simple. Fried pickles? Check. Fried green tomatoes? Check. Baked spinach and artichoke dip? Please, no, but check. But then, shrimp and pimento cheese dip. Nice.
Pimento cheese, for the uninitiated, is a mix of cheddar cheese, red peppers and mayonnaise -- aficionados prefer Duke's. Whether slathered on a celery stalk or between two slices of squishy white bread, pimento cheese is about as Southern as you get. Grocery stores carry a soulless variety made with processed cheese, but Hahn's makes true Southern, made better with coastal shrimp. You can make a feast on this app, or the mussels.
For a light meal, there's the $5 burger ($1 more for the fried egg); fried green tomato BLT with Bibb lettuce, applewood-smoked bacon, and spicy mayonnaise; and a bevy of salads. The superb shrimp burger is a densely flavored mix of shrimp, roasted corn, and onions slathered with Duke's. Fries here have a subtle earthiness.
Chef Hahn and Robinson are cultivating relationships with local farmers, and both seem dedicated to sourcing locally. The pork comes from Cassie and Natalie at Grateful Growers in Lincoln County while the white shrimp is from the North Carolina coast.
Entrees include meatloaf with mashed potatoes and an oven-roasted chicken with lemon. A well-executed, crisp-edged North Carolina mountain trout sits on a bed of terrific succotash. Evidently, finicky eaters who redesign the menu are common since my server questioned whether the succotash was "OK" by me. Absolutely.
Eight side items, including roasted beets, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, seasonal vegetables, and shells and cheese, can augment any dish.
The service at Common House is not comforting, however. Sure, the servers wear T-shirts and jeans, but at times the presentation seemed slap-dashed and a bit rushed. And then there's the stacking of the plates at the table. I was sure my server could read my lips mumbling repeatedly, "Please stop, please stop, please stop" but, no, she did not.
Desserts are refreshing and all-American. The luscious chocolate bread pudding soothed by coffee ice cream, though, sparkled without the lacing of chocolate syrup.
Fortunately, the Plaza Midwood prices are intact: Sandwiches range from $5 to $8 while entrees run from $10 for the daily pasta dish to $14 for the locally grown braised pork. A dozen beers are on tap and a half dozen microbrews in the bottle are offered. The haphazard wine list offers wines by the glass and the bottle.
The effect Common House has on the neighborhood -- the nexus of Plaza Midwood, Belmont and Elizabeth -- is to add to a vibrant part of town. Eating at Common House gives you the opportunity to have well-crafted, simple Southern cooking without having to go home.
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