SMALL AND BEAUTIFUL: The little yellow building on Cherokee Road in Winterville, right before you hit the gas station in the middle of town, has housed several restaurants or attempts at such over the years. Cafe Marigold probably made the best run at it, but even it had a rough time making it in the town of about 1100 people. Here’s hoping enough Wintervillians patronize and Athenians drive out to Little City Diner (135 Cherokee Rd., 706-742-7590, littlecitydiner.com) to keep it in business.
Brought to you by Matthew and Deenan Scott, who also own Athens’ Big City Bread, it serves sweet, unpretentious breakfast and lunch, plus a variety of baked goodies from a glass case built into the counter. More than anything else, you get the feeling these folks know what they’re doing. The coffee is the restaurant’s own blend, and the minute the self-serve carafe runs dry, it is gracefully replaced by a full one of the same. To-go orders are carefully packed. The grits are from Red Mule. Order at the counter from a surprisingly large menu, then find a seat at one of the small tables, grab an interesting magazine from the rack on the wall and spend your time admiring the cute selection of salt-and-pepper shakers.
Lunch is sandwiches and salad, for the most part, with a couple of soups, a burger, grilled cheese and a hot special of the day. The BBQ pulled pork is a little wet and oversauced, but it’s on a quality roll. The chicken salad is better, spiced with curry and studded with grapes, chunks of apple and spiced pecans. It’s kind of a mess as a sandwich, but worth grabbing a fork for.
Breakfast is more of a star. Biscuits are big, square and fluffy, brushed with a faint sweetness. The omelets are hefty in the best way, the kind of fat American egg pancakes jam-packed with meat, veggies and/or cheese that can give you a solid base for the day. Best of all is the plate that combines two perfectly poached eggs with country ham, butter-fried cornbread and a lake of marvelous sawmill gravy, a rainbow of textures and not shy with flavor.
If you see a rustic-looking apple pie in the case, at very least take a piece home with you.
Little City Diner is open for breakfast and lunch or brunch every day, from 6:30 a.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. weekends until 3 p.m. It serves no booze and takes credit cards.
REALITY CHECK: Little Bull Bar & Grill (259 E. Broad St. 706-552-1423), which opened a few months ago, is a different story. The web address printed on the menus is a mirage, an emblem of the entire experience. The idea of having a Puerto Rican eatery downtown, a nice business run by nice people, is a great one, but some credit must be given to reality.
No matter how many customers are present, the staff seems stretched thin, and orders move extremely slowly. You might finally manage to tell your waitress what you want only to have her return 10 minutes later (!) to tell you one component isn’t available. Apologies are lovely and they are appreciated, but they do not fill your belly, and although chips and salsa aren’t exactly authentic cuisine, I might suggest that they would be a cheap way to minimize complaints of hunger if the kitchen can’t get its act together.
Some of the food is decent. A special of a ripe plantain stuffed with ground beef and cheese and caramelized onions balances the super-sweetness of the banana relative to the savory filling. Both items on the menu that consist basically of fried meat (carne frita, which is pork, and chicharrones de pollo, i.e., chicken skins) are fairly solid. Apart from that, most other options are bland at best. Vegetarians are in trouble. Small portions of weakly seasoned beans and white rice do not make for happy people.
The concepts are not bad. It’s nice to be able to order mofongo, a mash of green plantains and tons of garlic, in Athens, and the idea of using tostones as the bread portion of a sandwich is a fine one. But in practice, the stuff is underseasoned and often oily. Both the “El Bolero” (flank steak pounded into oblivion) and the sliders that make use of the tostones fail. The empanadas are boring and largely empty puffs.
There are restaurants that can overcome poor service, flakiness and long wait times with superlative food (oh, Kabana, how I miss thee), but this is unfortunately not one of them. Little Bull is open for lunch and dinner every day, plus late at night in its bar function, and takes credit cards.