You could say things weren’t going very well at West Side Gravy in Collingswood when the ice bucket clattered to the floor. My server, sheepish as a 6-year-old slugger who just broke the neighbor’s window, dropped to his knees and began mopping up the mess, stammering contrition as cold water and cubes soaked the oak.
I mention this mishap not to point out a problem with the West Side Gravy staff—they’re usually adept and quite friendly—but because it drew my attention to said floors, laid in 1929 and still gleaming. “We just did a light sand and varnish on them,” explains chef/owner Alex Capasso. “We have an obligation to this space, both by town ordinance and personally. We didn’t want to sacrifice any of the building’s original details.”
This space once housed Collingswood’s grand old Woolworth’s department store. Much of the original architecture—the banner-like Woolworth’s sign along the facade, the high, pressed-tin ceiling—is still intact. The original display windows now showcase Formica tables nuzzled against the glass, occupied by locals digging into grilled cheese and fried chicken as pedestrians pass.
Grilled cheese and fried chicken aren’t exactly recipes for which Capasso, who also owns the acclaimed Blackbird Dining Establishment in the same building, is known. But the chef asserts, “Although we’re representing simpler dishes, we haven’t used it as an excuse to cook at a lower level or purchase products of lesser quality. I hope to install the same quality at West Side Gravy as at Blackbird.”
After two dinners, I can tell you Capasso’s hope is a reality. The menu is affordable, with nothing over $18.50 gracing the ’50s-style tables aligned in cafeteria rows. Quirky pop art by Capasso’s friend Suzanne Rende hangs on the walls (a chicken drumstick floating on angel wings, an anchor dropping into quivering red Jello). Though there’s no J-E-L-L-O on the menu, you’ll find plenty of comfort classics, prepared with precision and artistry.
Take the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Here, freshly ground peanut and cashew butters meet house-made mixed-berry jam on slabs of buttery, toasted Hudson Bakery brioche. The sandwich arrived cut in half diagonally, just like mom used to make. It also arrived with a salad of candied walnuts, golden figs and Gorgonzola, just like, well, no one in my family used to make.
Other between-bread choices include a grilled cheese sandwich oozing American, cheddar, fontina and Swiss, and the moist, Worcestershire-and-ketchup-enhanced pork-and-beef meatloaf—available with fluffy mashed potatoes and succulent sautéed spinach for a few dollars more. Too bad the bacon wrapping the loaf wasn’t very crisp. It was one of the rare execution snags I experienced. More typical were a perfectly cooked, Bordelaise-splashed ribeye with thin, salty frites and lush short ribs braised in red wine and veal stock till tender.
There was plenty of crunch in the wheels of panko-crusted green tomatoes streaked with smoky-hot chipotle aioli, or eggrolls stuffed with shaved beef, sautéed onions and sharp provolone, one of the better re-imagined cheesesteak appetizers around. A trio of fried cheese featured mozzarella with summery basil pesto, almond-crusted brie and goat cheese spheres with kalamata cores and a drizzle of bright lemon-thyme jam. The Southern fried chicken was all crackly skin over juicy dark-meat quarters, served with picnicky fixins of creamy potato salad and coleslaw.
Seeing a trend? Don’t worry; there are plenty of non-fried options at West Side Gravy. For a refresher, repair to peppery arugula salad with blueberries, pepitas and lemon dressing or the seared ahi tuna tacos. While the fried chicken was excellent, so were the two pan-roasted versions: one breast crusted in citrusy coriander and Arborio rice powder, the other posed over a fine Parmigiano-enriched risotto. You also can’t go wrong with tomato soup (lighter-bodied than most) or seashell-shaped four-cheese mac and cheese showered with toasted breadcrumbs.
Gravy’s desserts are gravy, following the restaurant’s playful streak by riffing on classic treats and candies—the Snickers features house-made nougat, dulce de leche and honey-roasted peanuts laid into a milk-chocolate bar. Airy coconut custard arrived in a cupcake-sized shell that shattered into cookie-like shards, while silky butterscotch pudding packed a boozy wallop under a veil of brûléed bananas. Subtly infused with basil, cheesecake was lightened into a mousse and piped between napoleon-stacked graham-cracker tuiles. The sprightly Creamsicle was an artful fantasy concocted from spongy vanilla genoise and orange zest-spiked cream: “It tastes just like the ice cream bar!” Capasso gushes. He won’t get an argument from me.