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Originally published Friday, July 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant review

The Virginia Inn is set for the next phase of its culinary life

The Virginia Inn has expanded its space.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample menu

Onion tart $7
Pastis prawns $9
Crab salad $10
Oyster stew $16
Steak frites $22

The Virginia Inn 2 stars

Pub/American

1937 First Ave., Seattle

206-728-1937

www.virginiainnseattle.com

Reservations: Accepted.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; dinner 5-10 p.m. Sundays- Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

Prices: $$ (lunch appetizers $5-$10, entrees $8-$12; dinner appetizers $5-$10, entrees $9-$22).

Drinks: Full bar, modest wine list, very good selection of beers on tap.

Parking: On street.

Sound: Loud when full.

Who should go: If you're in the 'hood, drop by for a sandwich or a drink.

Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard.

Access: No obstacles.

"Grab a menu. Pick seat," read the sign. I did as instructed one tranquil midafternoon at the Virginia Inn. A couple in the dining room munched on chips and sandwiches. Their gloomy faces signaled relationship woes, so I gave them a wide berth and sat near the bar.

In walked a gentleman with a newspaper under his arm and a brisk proprietary air. He greeted the staff by name and nodded politely at me before taking up what clearly is his customary post at the end of the bar. It wasn't long before we struck up a conversation and I learned that he lives upstairs in the 107-year-old Livingston-Baker building but spends a good deal of time in the Virginia Inn, where he enjoys the camaraderie as much as the beer.

A congenial place where regulars are treated like family and newcomers soon feel like one of the gang, this long-lived corner bar a steep block east of Pike Place Market recently expanded into the adjacent storefront. The spit and polish shows in the gleam of the wood and glow of the tiny hexagonal floor tiles, but the physical changes haven't obscured the sturdy, century-old, bricks-and-beams bones of the place.

The extra square footage allows for a spacious dining room with a mix of tables and booths. The old mahogany bar and bar back now occupy a separate lounge, where a banquette provides extra elbow room to knock back a pint or classic martini, a negroni spiked with orange bitters or a spritzy vodka-and-citrus refresher dubbed "Wednesday Afternoon Delight."

The expansion also permitted a full kitchen and a chance to broaden the menu. Dinner entrees have gotten more ambitious, the hors d'oeuvres list is longer, the sandwich selection larger — all solid ideas, but the execution, under chef Harrison "Rip" Ripley, is wobbly yet.

One meal got off to a promising start with a savory onion tart and pastis prawns. The flat tart shell crackled like phyllo and within its pretty fluted edge was a sweet onion jam grounded with anchovy and niçoise olives. The shrimp had been nimbly sautéed with garlic, thyme and pastis and served with grilled fennel, boosting the licorice overtones.

Grilled fennel was the centerpiece of the "Market Fresh Vegetable Plate" sampled on another evening, but it was barely cooked. The plate seemed makeshift, with a few strips of roasted red pepper and lots of wonderful cracked green olives in a lusty marinade of sun-dried tomatoes, cumin, coriander and chilies — hardly the fresh vegetable array one expects.

Nor did Dungeness crab cakes live up to the menu's boast that they are the best in town, though they might be the biggest. They are dense with flaked crab, coated in fine bread crumbs, but a little dry. It's not a good sign when the sauce (aioli spiked with Dijon), the slaw (crunchy threads of cabbage and carrot in a peppy dressing) and the fries (excellent) grab more attention than the crab cakes.

Lump-crabmeat lovers should opt for crab salad. Claw meat forms a mosaic atop a mound of frisée surrounded by diced orange and grapefruit. The dressing tasted more like the house thyme vinaigrette than aioli, as listed on the menu, but it worked well with the citrus, though the greens were insufficiently tossed and needed salt and pepper.

A salad of escarole and frisée with bacon and manchego cheese was off kilter, too: The cheese and bacon bits were very cold, thus tasteless, and too much sherry vinegar overwhelmed the walnut oil.

A peppercorn sauce served with grilled beef filet was sharp with raw garlic and also cold, causing it to congeal unpleasantly next to an otherwise decent steak. Likewise, a bland white wine broth short on aromatics did no favors for plump mussels.

Chicken and sausage gumbo derives most of its flavor from spicy andouille and tomatoes. It was served sans rice, unlike Mars' oyster stew, where rice anchored an immensely satisfying soup in which oysters and artichoke hearts jostled each other submerged in a milky broth spiked with ham and spinach.

I saw lots of sandwiches being served and once I tried the muffuletta and the grilled chicken I knew why. Zesty caper mayonnaise and mild fontina cheese embellished the moist chicken breast, while a heady green olive salad injected a sharp, garlicky wallop into every bite of the muffuletta, thickly stacked with salami, prosciutto, mortadella and provolone. (There is also a vegetarian version.) Both are built on crusty baguettes and come with fries at dinner or outstanding house-made potato chips at lunch.

At lunch I also was bowled over by the quiche du jour encased in tender pastry that crumbled like shortbread. That had not been the case with a warm berry tart on a previous visit, which was so tough to get a fork through I wondered if someone had mistakenly microwaved it.

Mocha pot de crème was by far the better dessert choice.

The Virginia Inn has operated almost continuously for 100 years under various owners. The current ones, Jim Fotheringham and Patrice Demombynes, have spruced it up nicely for the next century. While the kitchen still has some kinks to work out, I'd encourage you to join the regulars and hoist a glass at this nostalgic saloon.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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