Review of the Long-standing South Jersey Favorite Restaurant and Bar
A warm atmosphere and good bar go far to make up for some shortcomings in the food.
Rode’s Fireside Restaurant & Tavern in Woolwich Township is a very popular restaurant in this still largely agricultural area of Southern New Jersey. Established nearly twenty years ago, the restaurant and bar always draws a crowd of local devotees and curious travelers. The restaurant is comfortable and the service friendly and efficient, making it a relaxing place to linger for a full dinner or drinks while watching local sports games on the television. The food, however, does not always match up to the lofty aspirations of head chef William Bentley, particularly at the high prices charged. With a little polish and perhaps simplification of the menu, Rode’s Fireside Restaurant & Tavern could be a better contender for fine dining in the area.
The decor of Rode’s Fireside has a classic tavern feel to it, with dark wooden tables and chairs and a long bar, where many gather for happy hour or during sporting events. The room can be noisy when full, so the atmosphere is more convivial than romantic and soothing. The menu at dinnertime is a rather dauntingly long collection of appetizers, bar food, soups, salads, pasta entrees, meat and seafood entrees, burgers, chicken sandwiches and BBQ specialties. While browsing through all of the various selections, take some time to read through their wine list as well, which features a nice selection of affordable yet tasty wines from all around the world. Some nice selections are available by the glass for $6-10 from California Chardonnays to Italian blends to unique North American grapes.
Appetizers at Rode’s Fireside include classic favorites such as a Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail or Crab and Artichoke Dip, and run $7-12. Bar “Finger Foods” such as Nachos, Chicken Fingers, and Mozzarella Sticks are available for $6.50-15. Salads include a classic Caprese with Jersey tomatoes, when in season, or a Herb-Crusted Salmon Salad. Salads are priced $7-15. Pastas, served with house salad, are priced $15- 24 and include Seafood Scampi over Angel Hair and Veggie Penne Pasta. Meat and poultry selections include familiar options such as Chicken Saltimboca, Steak Roquefort, or Chicken Cordon Bleu and range $17.50-30.50. Seafood selections, touted as one of the restaurants specialties, include tuna, tilapia or salmon prepared six different ways, as well as crab cakes and butterflied shrimp. Seafood entrees run $17.50-28.95 and all entrees come with house salad plus starch and vegetable of the day.
Still can’t find something that appeals? You can try one of Rode’s Fireside BBQ plates such as a Beef Brisket Sandwich ($8.95) or a full rack of baby back ribs ($21.95). Burgers are available with a long list of possible toppings from seven different types of cheese to Cajun Mayo and Applewood Smoked Bacon. Five different chicken sandwiches are offered for $9.50 each, and yet more platters are available as well such as a Grilled Reuben Sandwich for $9.95 or Open Faced Hot Roast Turkey for $11.50.
With all of these options plus nightly specials, it can be hard to know where to begin. One night we sampled the Caprese Salad ($6.95), which was a tasty if standard presentation of this classic combination of tomato slices, mozzarella cheese and fresh basil. The bread served while waiting for house salads and entrees is a standard Italian seeded loaf, sliced but not toasted or warmed. House salads are fine, consisting of fresh spring lettuce, grape tomatoes, and cucumber although the house “sweet and sour” Italian Vinaigrette did not have much flavor, just a lot of oil.
Entrees at Rode’s Fireside are, in my experience, a bit hit or miss. Steaks are well-seasoned and nicely cooked. Less appealing was the Baked Stuffed Tilapia with jumbo lump crab meat ($23.95). While the crab stuffing was excellent, the tilapia did not taste especially fresh and would not be a dish I’d order again. Better was a special one night of Broiled Shrimp and Crab Cakes ($23.95), featuring two large cakes full of meat and very little filler. If only the cocktail and tartar sauces served with it was tastier and had more kick – this tasted straight out of a pre-prepared jar.
Pasta entrees are large and filling, and the Chicken Pasta Asiago with asparagus and mushrooms in a tomato cream sauce ($15.95) was tasty and filling without being overly sauced and greasy. The “Smashed Potatoes” are a better side than the Baked Potato, which did not taste particularly freshly baked on a recent visit. “Vegetables of the Day” such as asparagus and zucchini are acceptable, but again not especially thrilling and somewhat overcooked in consistency. Desserts are worth saving room for – a chocolate cake with ice cream and whipped cream was suitably decadent and their strawberry shortcake is highly recommended.
A full dinner at Rode’s Fireside Restaurant & Tavern, with a few drinks and full entrees ordered, can easily run up a tab in the $70-80 range. In all honesty I think this is a bit on the high side, given that with the exception of the better wine and bar selection, the food is not much better – and sometimes not as good – as that served at area diners at significantly lower prices. Rode’s seems to have fine dining aspirations that don’t quite measure up to the product coming out of the kitchen. Part of the problem could be their overly-lengthy menu, which offers so many options that quality control suffers. With a simplified menu, perhaps the chef could focus on doing less things but doing them better.
That said, Rode’s Fireside Restaurant & Tavern has to be doing something right to keep drawing the crowds that it does. Having dinner one night at the bar, I would say that what it does best is make its customers, new and old, feel immediately at home and welcome. If you live in the area, you are likely to run into at least one or two people you know there on any evening. The bartenders are much beloved by the regulars, who may stay briefly for a quick drink or linger for a light meal or snack. That would be my recommended approach to a night at Rode’s: don’t expect high-end dining at this Woolwich Township restaurant, but expect warm service and a feeling of family and belonging.
This review was originally published at Yahoo! Contributors Network on September 29, 2010.