Like the H1N1 virus and the music of Lady Gaga, fast-casual dining is a fact of life. You can fret. You can gnash your teeth. Or you can accept that, for a vast majority of the restaurant-going public, fast-casual places offer the ideal compromise among convenience, quality and value.
For those of you who live your lives blissfully free of restaurant-biz jargon, "fast-casual" is a catchall term for restaurants that are a step or several steps above fast food but not a full-blown, table-service experience. The category can encompass concepts from big-ass-burrito joints like Chipotle and Qdoba to sandwich shops like Jimmy John's and St. Louis Bread Co. to Noodles & Company to Stir Crazy to...
Suffice to say, there are many, many examples. New ones appear seemingly overnight in suburban strip malls and on prime downtown corners alike, each slickly branded, its process so fine-tuned that its first day of operation runs nearly as smoothly as the 1,000th, as if the restaurant wasn't designed and built but grown in tubes like the human Nav'i in Avatar.
Which makes it more impressive that into this crowded marketplace a new homegrown contender has entered: Sammy Scott's. There is only one Sammy Scott's so far, tucked into a Creve Coeur strip mall, in a shopping plaza that also offers Qdoba, Jimmy John's and Crazy Bowls & Wraps. But Sammy Scott's seems destined to expand. The website (www.sammyscotts.com) already features a "store locator," and its slogan could double as a sales pitch to potential franchisees: "Cravable Comfort Food."
The one branding aspect that could use work? The design. The layout is standard: You order at a counter from a menu posted on flat-screen monitors and receive a buzzer that signals when your meal is ready. No problem there. But the look of the restaurant is drab, featuring dour gray walls with horizontal yellow striping. The only décor consists of blown-up photos of the restaurant's fare. A fast-casual restaurant doesn't have to look sleek or distinct (as, say, Chipotle does) — but it shouldn't look like a 1970s basement, either.
Though new, Sammy Scott's boasts restaurant experience behind the scenes. Its partners include David Miller, grandson of St. Louis business magnate Lester Miller; the younger Miller worked at both of his grandfather's recent restaurant endeavors, the revamped Busch's Grove (now closed) and the still-hopping Lester's Sports Bar & Grill. The other partners are Anthony Dahl (J. Buck's, Finale), Tim Laughlin (Lester's) and Don Tamillo (Busch's Grove, Brio).
The "Sammy" of Sammy Scott's isn't a person, but a thing: sandwiches, which comprise the bulk of the menu. For the most part, these are variations on classic sandwiches, but that's not a bad thing. The fast-casual crowd doesn't need the wheel reinvented — what with family, work, errands, who has the time? — and even without bells and whistles, a well-made sandwich should be appreciated on its own merits.
Consider Sammy Scott's roast beef and Swiss cheese panini. Yes, it's a panini, which thanks to the ubiquity of Bread Co. and the George Foreman Grill has become cliché. And, yes, its combination of beef, cheese, onions, mushrooms and horseradish sauce is about as conventional as could be. But when it's good, who cares? The grilled Italian bread retains its essential crusty character — you won't experience that very often at a certain local chain — while the sandwich's contents reach the desired level of warm, and in the case of the cheese, gooey. The onions are caramelized to that ideal point of sweetness; the mushrooms are cooked to a yielding, almost meaty texture. Best of all is the roast beef, sliced thin and blushing pink, its rich flavor given a kick from the horseradish.
Likewise, the barbecue pork panini isn't truly a barbecue pork sandwich. The pork is roasted and then served with a sweet-smoky barbecue sauce, cole slaw, pepperjack cheese and cilantro on Italian bread. It's a little K.C.-style, a little Carolina-style and a little no style whatsoever. It's also tasty — the sauce just smoky enough to keep its sweetness from becoming cloying, the slaw adding some crunch, the cilantro an unexpected brightness.
Little touches matter here. A panini with chicken, mozzarella and bacon is elevated by an onion-apple jam. The "Caprese" sandwich forgoes the straight-up basil of a caprese salad, instead pairing tomato and mozzarella with pesto and, for an extra kick, red onion. Really, the only sandwich that falls flat is the "Cuban," here served with chicken and pork as well as pickles, mustard and Swiss cheese. The meats were underseasoned and, in the case of the chicken, tending toward dry.
For those seeking a simple sandwich, Sammy's offers a whole category of "Simple Sammy's" (meat with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo). Or you can opt for the French dip, the roasted meat of your choice served au jus. The French dip is also available as a "Philly" — not a cheesesteak, mind you, but the meat smothered with provolone, onions, roasted green and red pepper and mushrooms, jus on the side.
Sammy Scott's roasts its meats in-house — indeed almost everything here is made from scratch. That's especially noticeable in the soups, which possess more character than you might expect at a fast-casual restaurant. The cream of tomato soup is outstanding, velvety smooth and bursting with the flavor of ripe summer tomatoes. (That it is now February we'll try to ignore.) The broccoli-cheddar soup brings several large pieces of broccoli that, while certainly cooked past al dente, are recognizably broccoli instead of mush. Others sides — too many for me to have tried them all — include sausage stuffing, potato salad and decadently creamy (though generically tangy) macaroni and cheese.
If Sammy Scott's grows, it will be interesting to see if the chain can maintain its balance of meeting customers' expectations for a fast-casual restaurant — it is fast and affordable — with its evident pride in making most of its menu from scratch. For now, it's a welcome addition to the ever-burgeoning fast-casual market: homegrown, homemade, unique.
As a plus, it plays mostly '80s pop and rock over the sound system. For the duration of your lunch, at least, Lady Gaga ceases to exist.