Welcome to the mid-20th century. In every way except for price, the Variety Restaurant shows no evidence that anything has changed in the world of dining-out for the last three score years. A dimly-lit dinner house with wood-paneled walls, paper placemats, and eclectic-personal-nautical-Grecian décor, it is entirely demode, off the radar screen of savvy foodies. But still, it’s thriving, thanks to a steadfast clientele of regulars who come for exuberantly large portions of steak and potatoes or seafood and potatoes preceded by a crisp iceberg lettuce salad along with saltines in cellophane.
Waitresses are old-school. They neither introduce themselves by name nor offer the provenance of daily specials. By the second time I visited, I had earned the moniker “Hon’.” Square-meals eaters who appreciate such vintage diner hospitality and retro ambience without a jot of fashion will see the Variety as a rare gem.
Ribeye steaks are a house specialty, available in sizes from 10 to 20 ounces. The meat is choice, not prime (in the $30 range, not $50), aged enough to resonate with deep mineral potency, fork-tender, and full flavored. When filet mignon is on the menu, it’s a prize: tender, juicy, radiantly beefy. On the side of steaks comes a huge, fluffy-centered baked potato, a twice-baked potato, or a great tangle of French fries along with a few spongy hushpuppies.
Seafood is the Variety’s main claim to fame, most of it brought in fresh from the coast by proprietor “Jimmy the Greek.” To begin a meal, I’ve enjoyed she-crab soup vibrant with spice and loaded with sweet meat and oyster stew that balances buttery and oceanic — less about comfort and more like a thrilling nautical embrace. And of course, there are oysters, sparkling on the half-shell (or, if you wish, fried). Among fabulous flatfish usually available are grouper, shark, a plate-wide grilled salmon steak that is velvet-soft inside with crisp, caramelized edges; and whole flounder boasting fine, flaky flesh. A medley of seafood can be had on the “King Fisherman’s Platter,” which runs well over $20 at dinner but less than that when the restaurant is open for lunch. (Lunch service is discontinued during summer months.)
Note: Please pardon digital noise in some of the interior photos. It is dark enough inside the Variety that many were shot at ISO 50,000.