I don't remember who first told me about the Piccadilly at Manhattan. Maybe no one did. Maybe I read something somewhere. Whatever the case, every so often over the past couple of years someone would mention the restaurant, and I would say, "Oh, yeah, been meaning to go there," and make a mental note to try it. Inevitably, though, because I tend to have new restaurants on the brain and this iteration of the Piccadilly opened in late 2007, that mental note would vanish into my mental fog.
I get restaurant recommendations all the time. But these were different. They weren't the breathless e-mails I receive whenever a new location of Trendhumpers: An American Bistro & Tapas Bar opens. They weren't the tips about strip-mall taquerias certain readers pass along as furtively as pornography. No, these recommendations were matter-of-fact, though tinged with bemusement. Either you knew about the Piccadilly or you didn't.
A few weeks ago, when one of my own coworkers asked if I'd ever eaten there, I decided it was finally time that I knew about the Piccadilly.
The Piccadilly at Manhattan is an address as well as a name: The restaurant stands at the corner of Piccadilly and Manhattan avenues on a quiet residential stretch of the city's Ellendale neighborhood, just across the county line from Maplewood. It manages to look like both the oldest and the newest building on the block. The Collida family opened the original Piccadilly in the 1920s, and the exterior retains an old-fashioned charm, notably a striped awning and wrought-iron porch outside the front entrance.
Yet this version of the Piccadilly is largely the result of a renovation current owners Nick and Maggie Collida undertook after the original closed in 2002, and the exterior of the new Piccadilly still feels fresh. The back patio wouldn't look out of place in a new suburban development. The interior is a nice balance of generic (in the neutral sense of the word) neighborhood-bar comforts — there's much dark wood — and unique décor. I especially like the tabletops: One has vinyl records displayed under glass, another poker chips, a third photographs from the restaurant's renovation.
If the Collidas don't greet you as you enter the Piccadilly, it is probably because they are in the kitchen. If you're lucky, Nick Collida will be out back tending the smoker, and smoked prime rib or baby-back ribs will be available as a special. I ordered a whole slab of ribs — partly because I'm a glutton, partly because Pappy's Smokehouse owner Mike Emerson was in the house that night, which I took as a good omen. The ribs were excellent: plump and only lightly basted with sauce, if at all. The meat offered sweetness and smoke and a fine porcine flavor. The sauce, appropriately served on the side, adds just enough tang to cut through the rich meat.
The regular menu features a pulled-pork sandwich. The pork shoulder isn't smoked but cooked overnight in the oven, so I fear the hint of smoke I detected comes from a liquid. Still, as meat for a sandwich, the pulled pork is lovely, tender and sweet and doused in that tangy sauce. Cole slaw is served on the side if you want your sandwich Memphis-style.
The fried-chicken dinner brings half a chicken. The kitchen manages to render each piece — breast, thigh, leg and wing — crisp on the outside and moist within. The breading lacks the distinctive spicing that would boost this bird into the area's uppermost ranks, but it is still excellent. The chicken is served with mashed potatoes drowned in thick, flavorful brown gravy and green beans that...well, maybe skip the green beans to save room for all that chicken and gravy.
The best dish at the Piccadilly might be the burger: a single or double cheeseburger or a patty melt. This is about as basic — as essential — as burgers get: meat, cheese, bun. The double features two five-ounce patties, each thicker in the middle than around, and even cooked slightly longer than I prefer, the beef flavor is primally rich, with a wonderful edge of char. The patty melt is an outstanding example of the subspecies, that same excellent patty topped with Swiss cheese and a generous (but not ridiculous) serving of sautéed onions, between two thick slices of toasted marble rye.
Yes, the menu is conventional, but this is the sort of place you visit because you want wings or T-ravs or spinach-artichoke dip. In an odd way, the most representative dish is probably a cup of broccoli-cheese soup. This perennial favorite, commoditized by T.G.I. Friday's and St. Louis Bread Co., here is given the love it deserves. Not gussied up or reinterpreted or deconstructed, just made really well, thick and tangy with cheese and chock-full of vegetables that are recognizable in texture and flavor as broccoli.
Maybe not coincidentally, the one dish that doesn't work is the one that seems most out of place on the menu: the shrimp "po' boy." Medium-plump shrimp are sautéed — not, as po' boy purists would likely insist, fried — and then tossed in a light sauce that is something like a rémoulade and, frankly, better suited to some sort of pasta dish than to a sandwich.
On my visits there were two dessert options: freshly made blackberry or peach cobbler. The blackberry is fantastic: tart and sweet beneath a light, flaky crust and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
I would love to say I have discovered a secret treasure, but on my final visit, the place was absolutely packed — on a Tuesday evening. The tables inside were full, and despite the oppressive heat and humidity, some diners even sat outside. No, there is no secret here. Either you know the Piccadilly at Manhattan or you don't.
If you don't, you should.