It was a rotten evening cold, ice on the groundand I was in a rotten mood cold, ice in my heart, certain that no one but me understood the absurdity of the human condition so of course I ended up visiting the Delmar Restaurant and Lounge.
Hanging on a wall in the Delmar is a poster for the 1950 film noir In a Lonely Place. There's not much more you need to know about this Delmar Loop stalwart. It's all I need to know.
Last year Time included In a Lonely Place on its list of "All-Time 100 Movies." But for decades In a Lonely Place was a neglected classic, not even a cult favorite, but a sort of secret society. You likely stumbled upon it by accident but once you saw it, you were scarred for life.
I caught it at a Humphrey Bogart film festival in Sheffield, England, of all places, and I can still remember sitting in the theater long after the lights came up, stunned silent, not quite believing its ending, not quite believing, no matter how different its circumstances were from my own, no matter how many years before my birth it had been made, that it wasn't, in some small way, about me.
Bogart plays the awesomely if improbably named Dixon Steele, an alcoholic, past-his-prime screenwriter prone to violent outbursts. He falls in love with a new neighbor, the lovely and witty (and slightly less improbably named) Laurel Gray. And he might have recently murdered a young woman.
Without giving away more of the plot, what's so compelling about In a Lonely Place is the edge of menace lurking beneath even its wittiest or most romantic moments. Really, watching it, you start wondering whether we invent witty or romantic moments only to hide our loathsome true natures from everyone including ourselves.
So I try not to think about In a Lonely Place too often. But there its poster is whenever I visit the Delmar. Even when I sit with my back to it or on the other side of the room, I have to pass it on the way to the restroom.
Maybe it's just a decoration. Maybe someone chose it for the obvious reason that it fits with all the other film noir posters on the walls, not to mention the sinister red-and-black color scheme. (And clearly the Delmar doesn't take itself too seriously. Every Monday is "Talk Like a Pirate Night," after all.)
But the Delmar is the kind of place that invites brooding contemplation. Even at its most crowded, you can hide behind a swirl of cigarette smoke or the blast of live jazz or a DJ spinning or the general 3 a.m.-license hijinks around you. Come for dinner, and aside from the background music (and, on a recent occasion, a guy at the bar talking very loudly about his vasectomy), you might think you've stepped into a sanctuary. So I'd like to believe the poster is a codean invitation into the fraternity of those who have seen In a Lonely Place and need to be reminded of it and then, once they've been reminded of it, need to order a stiff drink. And then another.
And possibly a cup of Virginia peanut soup.
This is the other reason I like the Delmar. It's not a great restaurant. Sometimes like when I ate two bone-in pork chops with a "cranberry demi-glace," which wasn't a demi-glace or even a sauce but some halved cranberries and their juice atop two thin chops grilled far beyond tender it's barely passable. Every now and then, though, it surprises me.
The Virginia peanut soup was a special. It was creamy, but not much thicker than, say, tomato soup. It had a mellow, roasted flavor, with a hint of the sweetness of processed peanut butter just enough to liven things up. It managed the neat trick of being a rich, winter-friendly soup without being filling. Sopped up with slices of warm bread, it took the edge off my rotten evening.
Another surprise at the Delmar is the "Filet." This wasn't quite as tender as filet mignon, which means it was likely cut from the other end of the tenderloin. At any rate, it was as good as any steak I've eaten in recent months. It's served stuffed with crawfish, but this is a minor note, a seasoning just slightly more complex than salt, compared to its mushroom demi-glace. This tasted like an actual, honest-to-God classic brown sauce, with mellow, earthy mushroom. The steak sat on the largest damn potato pancake I've ever seen, a delicious, piping-hot pillow of grated potato perfectly crisped on the outside and given a very slight tang by a touch of Gouda cheese.
At $22 the filet is the most expensive entrée on the Delmar's small, reasonably priced menu. Few other dishes will surprise you, but for a place known primarily for its 3 a.m. license, the Delmar offers solid, if unspectacular, choices. The sun-dried tomato cream cheese that accompanied a pan-fried chicken breast didn't look too appetizing on the menu, and on the plate it made no impression whatsoever but the chicken itself was crisp outside, juicy inside and blandly comforting.
I've always liked the Delmar's pizzas. These are small one is enough for one person's dinner with a thin (but not St. Louis-style) crust. The four-cheese pizza is a blend of mozzarella, pecorino, Asiago and blue cheese, lightly sauced and sprinkled with fresh basil. I'm not a huge fan of barbecue chicken pizzas, and my dining companion professed openly to dislike them, but we were both impressed by the Delmar's. The barbecue sauce wasn't too sweet, and the hunks of chicken were tender.
The pizzas are available after dinner service ends at 10 p.m., as is the lengthy list of appetizers. These err on the side of crowd-pleasing bar food: a fritto misto of popcorn shrimp and calamari served with a very watery marinara; spinach-artichoke dip with a layer of bubbling-hot mozzarella on top; a decent (if a bit too astringent) hummus.
You could make a meal out of the roasted vegetable or beef tenderloin quesadillas, though I don't know that I'd recommend it. The beef quesadilla fell flat; even the roasted red pepper sauce drizzled over it lacked flavor. The roasted vegetable quesadilla, on the other hand, had a slightly bitter taste, as if there were too many root vegetables in the mix. In this case the roasted-jalapeño cream sauce did brighten things up a bit, and unusual for this town said sauce actually had some heat.
Then again, if you're ordering food at the Delmar after 10 p.m., especially once the other bars have closed, the cops start making security passes through the place and you have to guard your seat with your life, questions of cuisine probably aren't on your mind. You're there for one last round or one last shot at not going home alone or to forestall for another couple of hours having to go home at all.
Whether you don't want to go home or whether you're like me, a metaphysical mess who wants a bite to eat, the Delmar is there for you, at least until three in the morning. Hemingway a guy in a lonely place if ever there was one probably said it best: "[I]t is probably only insomnia. Many must have it."