For the longest time, nothing would stick at 332 15th Avenue East. Over 10 years, the space housed Kozak's (bar with barbecue), Maguire's (Irish pub with Irish grub), Mango's (possibly tropical themed), Jake's (no one knows—poor Jake!), Hopscotch (a Scotch bar with dining), and, very briefly, Cypress (a Mediterranean-oriented restaurant and lounge that no one but me was ever inside). Was this land formerly a Native American burial ground? If so, it's a small one; the Bagel Deli next door has been successfully serving just-okay bagels since circa 1886.
When Linda Derschang opened Smith there in 2007, it was cause for cautious optimism. If anyone could banish specters, dispel doom, and make something good in the drinkery- with-food department, it would be she of Linda's and King's Hardware. Derschang has the magic touch; her makeover of the space's interior was the first convincing one, embracing the darkness to make a kind of goth hunt-club study/pub. Wainscoting and doors were salvaged from the renovation of Garfield High School. Burlap and faintly patterned, dusky wallpaper covered the walls, with creepy and wonderful taxidermied birds and comically terrible portraits for decoration. Stacks of books came from the public-library sale. Two long tables met the au courant communal-table requirement, while a whole wall of wooden booths gave one a choice in the matter.
From the beginning, it was packed, loud, and convivial, an excellent place to drink, with a laudable beer selection. The gastropub menu? Not so much. It was more ambitious than Linda's and King's, but met with critical crickets: not so bad you'd want to warn people, just not that good. Blue-cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates were a popular snack early on, as was the poutine; the burger was fine; other dishes were heavy and/or bled grease for no compelling reason. Hot food sometimes came out cold, regular food sometimes came out hyper-salinated, and service sure could be bitchy. (One memorable exchange: "Is the kitchen still open?" "I dunno. [Sigh.] Is it 11 yet?" What do I look like, Big Ben?) Stranger reader-reviews vacillated wildly. Among food people, the word was, "Eh."
The alchemy of a restaurant is far from a perfect science. Derschang is currently more involved in her newest place, Oddfellows Cafe + Bar (criticized for suboptimal food here recently—criticism that, in an online comment, Derschang agreed with and pledged to address). Meanwhile, two years in, Smith seems to have lucked out with its third chef: Eliot Guthrie, 24 years old, who's worked in the kitchens of Campagne, Lark, and Le Pichet. At last, the stars have aligned: The service is startlingly improved, and the food is actually, really good.
The fried items on Smith's menu now earn their oil content. Barely thicker-than-normal house-made potato chips ($3) taste like potato while still shattering crisply. Salt cod fritters are very black-peppery and made of perceptible chunks of fish. (The fritters are $6 at night, $7 with a soft-boiled duck egg as an awesome weekend brunch plate.) The poutine's still around ($6/$10), and so's the marrow ($9, now served with grilled bread instead of cute-but-dumb Triscuits). But in general, the food's moved away from self-consciously neo-British—gone are the trotters and brawn, fried duck leg, venison meat loaf, beer-potted cheese.
You won't miss any of it (and vegetarians will no longer starve to death). Now there are oysters on the half shell, six for $12; last week, they were Ocean Pearl, Penn Cove, and Snow Creek, shucked without shards, cool and delicious with a champagne mignonette, and served with crostini smeared with simple horseradish cream. About service: In the past, questions prompted gaping and "I'd have to ask," to which you'd have to say, "Um, well, would you?" Now if you inquire about the oysters, they tell you where they're from on the map and lob a couple worthwhile descriptors to boot (e.g., "cucumbery"). They ask you how you'd like your meal coursed; they check back often, yet uninterruptively. Whatever miraculous ennicening and ensmartening process has been utilized here should be applied to the entire world. (And that crostini with the oysters is another nice touch: A little treat on the plate that's not on the menu is a low-cost, very smart gesture.)
The daily-changing crostini (three for $10, like beet/blue cheese and tuna/piquillo pepper/capers) are a swell innovation, too, for appetizers or drinking snacks. These are listed on the specials blackboard; you could order solely from it and be happy. A watercress salad was a joy, with lightly pickled, practically translucent baby carrots (both orange and golden), ricotta, and Meyer lemon, all zingy and spring-tasting ($7). Another night: watercress with thin slices of artichoke, spring onion, more ricotta ($7), at first almost offensively strong, but then like a slap in the face you didn't know you needed. These are simple salads, but ones that make you think, feel, and react. The richness and grandness of a braised short-ribs special ($13)—a big block of push-apart-tender beef with fingerling potatoes and snips of asparagus in a tomatoey romesco sauce—caused me to eat so much of it, I had to go home and lie down. A bacon-wrapped quail special was gone by eight o'clock one night, about which I am still bereft.
The regular menu is on the cusp of changing for spring, but if the Cuban-style sandwich ($12) sticks around, and you like spiciness and pork and things that are good, it's got your number. The chicken ($14), too, was terrific, with a big, creamy semolina-gnocchi square, floppy-braised escarole, and olives combined with (I'm guessing) balsamic vinegar and magic to make a plummy-tasting pan sauce. One off-note: chalky, possibly cooked-too-fast lentils with kale ($7).
Finally, Smith's portions are shareably large, the prices are right, and the eating's as good as the drinking. Everything's all sorted out at 332 15th Avenue East. Knock on wood.