Roamin' up the old train tracks from my previous review across from the former train depot in LaFayette, last weekend I found myself back at the historic Chattanooga Choo-Choo. My primary quest was to see if the food and "singing servers" at The Station House would "wow" me like the diner car had.
1400 Market St.
Chattanooga, TN 37402
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you'll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it's the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it's worth it
Atmosphere and service
The restaurant was packed, but thankfully, I had made reservations as recommended. The interior was very low-lit and lined with classic brick walls and nostalgic Choo-Choo décor done with a classy ambiance.
With the "singing servers" taking the stage throughout the evening, I was, literally, blown away: The talent of the servers and live musicians was top-notch, and that's a good thing because it was loud (like concert loud). My party had to form hand-cup megaphones and yell to communicate with each other.
If the musicianship had been bad, this volume would've been horrible, but these were professional-quality performances spanning classics from the past to a few contemporary tunes, and regardless of the music selection, they ranged from enjoyable to tolerable. However, aside from her fun stage presence, my server was surly throughout the entire evening to all of her tables and was taking her time—and her section wasn't being kept up by others while she was busy singing, either.
Each meal includes unlimited trips to the salad and shrimp bar. This was average, with your usual salad bar veggies, dressings and pasta salads. The peel-and-eat shrimp were small and chewy, and I didn't even finish the few I grabbed. Most items seemed to be fresh, but nothing special. It was a salad bar.
The dinner rolls were of the typical variety you can buy at Walmart. However, the whipped butter had a silky, airy softness.
I also ordered corn fritters ($5.49). The soft corn on the inside was hot and creamy, and the outer batter was golden-fried to a firm crispiness without being too greasy. These were topped with powdered sugar and served with warm apple butter. This powerfully flavored sauce intensified the sweetness of the corn and complemented the fritters' light, savory flavors, ending this course on a high note.
When the main entrées arrived after about 30 minutes, I first sampled the baby back ribs ($16.49). Now, imagine for a moment, if you will, the exquisite succulence baby backs can bring: the tender meat sliding cleanly off the bones, leaving no trace behind; the juices a flowing whirlpool as each morsel delicately melts in your mouth with each bite; the sweet, smoky essences swirling around your palate in a primal flavor vortex.
These ribs had none of those qualities. This meat wasn't awful, but it was a bit on the chewy side. And much of the meat stayed on the bone, so some dedicated gnawing would have been required to pick it clean.
I wasn't crazy about the barbecue sauce, either, and thought it was too sweet, but that is highly subjective. However, cooked meat quality isn't, and these were simply subpar ribs—you can do much better at many places around town.
Baked beans were served to the side, and these were OK. They had a good balance of sweet and spicy flavors with crunchy veggies and soft beans in a soupy sauce. The steak fries were seasoned, breaded thick potato wedges and were soft—but seemed to be of the prepackaged variety.
Things didn't get much better with the New York strip ($21.49). This 12-ounce strip was cooked to our medium-rare specification, but it tasted like it wasn't seasoned at all. Merely hitting it with the proper amount of salt and pepper would've made a world of difference.
The steamed rice to the side was seasoned with turmeric, giving it a bright yellow hue. It was cooked to a firm, non-sticky consistency, and was a nice, light side. However, when paired with the bland beef, there were few flavor notes to the dish as a whole, and it fell flat.
Surely the chicken forestiere ($15.99), with its free-range Ashley Farms chicken breast smothered with a wild mushroom cream sauce, would bring some strong flavors to the table, right?
Though it was initially pleasant to the eye, this sauce was surprisingly weak. Wild mushrooms have very strong, earthy flavors, but that wasn't the case here—its expected wild flavor melody was more like elevator Muzak to my taste buds.
The chicken itself was nicely charbroiled and had a juicy interior, but it had very little seasoning. This would've been OK had the sauce brought more flavors to soak into the chicken and its bed of steamed yellow rice, but as it was, the sauce failed the dish's other components.
I also had mushrooms to the side, which were small, soft buttons and tasted like they were sautéed in wine. These were good and would go well as a side to other dishes.
My postlude for this meal was the chocolate toffee mousse with Kahlúa ($5.75). This was a thick mousse in pie form—a consistency similar to cheesecake—with a crumbly chocolate crust. It wasn't overly rich, and the buttery, hard toffee pieces and the "hard" coffee liqueur flavors inside the chocolate mouse had my taste buds, finally, dancing to the tunes of the many musically talented people at this place.
I am giving The Station House 2 stars. Though the "singing servers" were extremely talented, the service took a back seat to the show, and the food, while not a total train wreck, was simply off-key. The dishes were overpriced for the quality, and although that could be substantiated with the performances, they also tack on a 15 percent "entertainment charge" to the final check total, not including the gratuity.
The Station House is a fun experience if you are looking for a lively atmosphere and don't mind the loud volume. But if you want to dine at the Choo-Choo and are looking for quality food, the Dinner in the Diner train car is far superior for a similar price (factoring in The Station House's entertainment charge) and well worth the cost for locals and tourists alike.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga's food scene. You can find him at romanflis.com or on Facebook and Twitter, or you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.