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Where everybody knows your name 

Getting neighborly at Colony Grill

What public spaces exist today where everyone knows your name? Besides the obvious -- work and perhaps church or a 12-step group -- where do you go? Coffeehouses are great meeting places, but they don't have the convivial atmosphere of the old corner bar. The Internet, which connects cliques with clicks, is replacing the traditional hot spots with online games sites and chat rooms. The current and most compelling brick-and-mortar reincarnation of the corner bar has been the tiny strip-mall restaurant. It's these places that bartenders, managers and chefs still spend their free time chatting up customers to make them feel "at home."

The 88-seat Colony Grill is such a place. Owners Chris Lopez and John Fisichello opened the place on Oct. 31. The Colony Road location had previously housed Oneo, and much of that restaurant remains: the commanding maître d' standing at the door, the whimsical white fabric adorning the dining-room ceiling and the built-in wine storage units. New are the bar area's three televisions and a deeper-toned paint on the walls. The bar, with its rakishly tousled bartender, has already become a popular place for locals to congregate and have drinks, desserts or dinner.

The venture has taken chef Lopez out of the kitchen. He worked with Jon Dressler at Morton's Chicago Steakhouse downtown and then at Dressler's in Birkdale for six years. Before coming to Charlotte, Lopez worked at the Buckhead Morton's in Atlanta and the Port City Chop House in Wilmington. He learned the ropes of the restaurant business in his 17 years of hands-on experience. Lopez's partner Fisichello has owned a series of pizza shops in the Charlotte area since 1986. His current store is Mario's Pizza and Italian Restaurant on Weddington Road in Matthews, which he opened in 2004.

Lopez, who describes Colony Grill as an "approachable neighborhood spot," says, "We wanted to have a place that is accessible -- not expensive."

Chef Konstantin Colmatov, a native Ukrainian who has worked with Lopez since Morton's, presides over the kitchen. The menu is a round-up of perennial comfort foods: burgers, rib eyes, shrimp pasta and the ubiquitous roasted salmon. Even though these are paired with mashed potatoes and the like, Lopez has put a spin on the equally predictable sides by using purple potatoes or sweet potatoes. The smartly conceived menu, which pays homage to its owners' roots, manages to expand the approachable formula in subtle ways. For example, the kitchen revels in inventive relishes, many of them as tangy as they are sweet.

On our visit, we started with fried chicken wings tossed with Peri Peri piled high on the plate and served at the critical moment between being too hot and too cool -- on the verge of being oily. Very tasty. One night's anemic tuna taco became utterly irresistible on a second visit.

The king of the salad category was the hardy spinach intertwined with plump crispy oysters, sweetened with apples, pickled onions and bacon dressing. The Caesar salad could stand a more restrained hand with the dressing. Another disappointment was the side order of mac and cheese, which tasted more Kraft than crafted.

How are the entrees? Some of the dishes bear the mark of sweetness, which for some diners is a preferred taste. The slow-braised beef short ribs are enlivened by a novel blend of a barbecue sauce and smoked yellow corn relish. The pork tenderloin is enhanced by caramelized onions and mashed sweet potatoes. Also sweet -- but intended to be -- are the wonderful desserts, all made in house and served in portions meant to be shared. The marvelous molten chocolate was first rate, while the vanilla cheesecake was a bit dry.

The wine selection is modest and listed on the back of the menu, though dozens are offered by the glass as well. Service has proved erratic: excellent at the bar but haphazard in the dining room -- an occurrence which is becoming more common in the south Charlotte suburbs. And please -- don't call me "hon." I expect that only if you're wearing a pink uniform and your name is Flo.

Entrees range from $15 for the pork tenderloin to $19 for the hand-cut rib eye, including sides. Sandwiches, served all day, are $8 and $9 and include a side order of sweet potato fries or fruit. Currently, the same menu is used at lunch and dinner, but a new lunch menu is planned for February. A separate Sunday brunch menu is offered as well. Overall, Colony Grill and its dishes could be described as simple, humble and satisfying.

Eaters' Digest

Now closed is Jeff Ritz and Lorena Castillo-Ritz's Bella Trio, A California Fresco Kitchen, 7731 Colony Road, beside Colony Grill. The Ritz posted a sign on the door thanking their customers for two years of patronage. Two other restaurants, Oneo and Bear Rock Café, have closed in this shopping center. Another of this site's tenants -- the still-open Maria Bonita née Cilantro Latin Cuisine -- changed concepts from gourmet Latino to Tex-Mex.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need notice of events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

Colony Grill
7725 Colony Road, Suite 4, 704-341-8400.Hours: Monday through Thursday 11am until 10pm; Friday and Saturday 11am until 11pm and Sunday 10am until 9pm. Patio. AmEx, MC. Visa, Dis, Diners. www.colonygrillcharlotte.com

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