Midway in my journey home from work, I found myself eating fried chicken in Williamsburg, the straight way lost. To tell about that meal is hard—so tangled and rough—the very thought of it renews my fear. —Dante, loosely paraphrased.
So it's around nine o'clock on a weeknight, and you're a twenty-something in South Williamsburg, already several whiskeys into your evening. Suddenly aware that your Jack Daniels is splashing on an empty stomach—hey, you didn't get around to eating anything in your four hours of wakefulness, unless a warm PBR counts—you start looking for somewhere nearby, for fried chicken and mac-and-cheese, with no wait and no frills. Nothing as culinarily ambitious as Brooklyn Star; nothing as crowded as Egg; nothing as pricey as Walter Foods. The food doesn't have to come in a hurry—you've got nothing else to do tonight. They can seat your whole party of seven. Oh, and the bottle of Jack, the one you've already opened, has to come along for the ride, too.
If that's your situation, then I can wholeheartedly recommend Dante's, a cavernous, Southern-ish restaurant on Hope Street, just south of Metropolitan Avenue.
If that's not your situation—well, venture into the fires of Dante's at your own risk. It's hardly the Inferno. But a journey through the menu brings its own epic sense of peril and adventure.
Wandering up the stairs to Dante's dining room can leave one somewhat disoriented—is this a lounge, or a coffee shop, or a sports bar? Well, not that last one; though a mammoth bar dominates the restaurant's right side, there's no alcohol on tap. A few plush couches surround a coffee table, as if waiting for freelancers to pull out their laptops. A mural of a Renaissance-plump naked woman stretches across the ceiling; the less said about that, the better.
But Dante's is neither Brooklyn bar nor airy corner café nor D-list art gallery, but a vaguely Southern restaurant working its way into "Southern Fusion." Some of its offerings are quite successful. Others, however, go down much better after a drink or two. Moral of the story? Bring your own.
Meals start out with a perfectly decent basket of whole-kernel pepper-flecked cornbread—a little sweet, pleasantly moist, easy to nibble.
The bangers & mac ($11)—cute, no?—feature two links strangely reminiscent of sweet breakfast sausage, so much so that I could almost taste the maple syrup. But the smoky, cheesy, crunchy mac-and-cheese was some of the best I've had recently, even in this mac-obsessed town.
A separate "Southern Fusion" menu offers head-scratching dishes including avocado-reuben eggrolls and "chicken fried chicken Kiev," like an early episode of Top Chef gone terribly wrong. On this menu, Shrimp and Grits ($15.00) on a beer-battered grit cake was among the tamer options. There's something appealing about this dish—the sharp spice of the shrimp, the outside crust and inner sloppiness of the Gouda-gooey grit cake pedestal (battered in, what else, PBR). But the shrimp emerge somewhat chewy, and the grits settle heavily in the stomach, after even two bites in.
Chicken Fried Steak ($13.50) was a straight disappointment—limp breading, weak white sauce, barely enough meat to make out. "The breading on top met the breading on the bottom without pausing for much of anything in between," once wrote Frank Bruni about a veal Milanese at the memorably terrible Ago. "A vegan could have made peace with it." I'd say much the same about Dante's steak. A side of collard greens swam in barbecue sauce that tasted as if it were straight from the squeeze bottle.
After the first bite of that last dish, I wasn't inclined to trust anything with "chicken" and "fried" in the title. But the Fried Chicken Basket ($9) was actually quite decent—crispy breading, if a little too eager to shed, with tender meat and steaming-hot fries. Not worth a detour, not worth remembering, but one of the better bets on the menu.
While our initial greeting was incredibly gracious—a friendly waitress, answering all of our menu questions, drinks and cornbread within moments—service grew slower and slower as the evening progressed, with nearly half an hour between our doggy-bag request and its appearance on our table. Procuring a slice of sloppy, barely-cooked apple pie took another half-hour, and this, as we were the only customers in the dining room.
But the check appeared along with a handful of candies, Smarties and Pixie Stix, that sweetened our departure considerably. If you're the sort of diner who can revel in these little touches—tasty cornbread, free candy, open acceptance of your drinking habits—and manage to look past the unexciting entrees, Dante's is the place for you. If not, well, don't say you hadn't been warned.