- Walter Novak
- Karl Abounader doesn't do finger sandwiches.
Only a few blocks separate Karam "Karl" Abounader's comfy eatery from the chic salons anchoring the intersection of West Sixth and St. Clair in the Warehouse District. But in terms of ambiance and style, light-years might be a better measure.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. If high-priced hotspots like XO, Johnny's, and Blue Point Grille serve as refuges for downtown's well-off white collars, Abounader's digs -- Karl's Inn of the Barristers, so named for its proximity to the Justice Center -- are a respite for the regular folks: the cops, the secretaries, and the paralegals who keep the world safe for their Blackberry-toting colleagues, even as those big spenders sit down to $35 steaks and $12 martinis in the haute haunts nearby.
Of course, Karl's clientele also includes the occasional visitor of even humbler means, drawn by the aroma of home-cooked food and the promise of a warm barstool. Take the wizened-looking dude in sweat pants and a stocking cap, who spent a good part of a recent Friday evening sitting in silence at the bar, nursing a Bud and a pack of smokes. Head down, his back turned to Abounader and to the sports playing on the telly, he seemed lost in private contemplation. "Wanna bet his next stop is a steam grate?" a companion asked, not unkindly.
But as a working stiff himself, the burly Abounader doesn't judge. "We get the good, the bad, and the ugly in here," he shrugs, his equanimity befitting a guy clad in work boots and Levi's. "I don't mind. At the end of the day, their money all looks the same to me."
It's the attitude of a survivor in this dicey industry. After all, even 10 years ago, there was still a fistful of little spots like Karl's dotting the downtown landscape -- unpretentious pit stops where working people of all stripes could grab a coffee, a towering corned-beef sandwich, or a Friday-night fish fry on their way to someplace else. Destination dining, it was not. But the food was satisfying, the prices were reasonable, and the vibe was comfortable and homey.
By now, though, the city's changing demographics have forced most of these simple eateries off the scene. Workers budgeting time and money seek out the food courts and fast-food joints; those who can afford more leisurely indulgences head to the trendy spots. Yet even the most cynical jury would find an old-fashioned charm -- maybe even a sort of communal goodness -- in these unassuming places that even the most exclusive wine list or trendiest customers cannot begin to replicate today.
Karl's, of course, has been able to hold on, thanks in part to its location, its long hours, and its egalitarian ideals. Also, Abounader knows his way around the biz, having served his time in downtown eateries for the past 37 years, ever since he arrived from Lebanon as a teen.
"I was 19, I couldn't speak the language, and I didn't know nothin' 'bout nothin'," he attests. But he did know how to buckle down to a job, and after learning all he could at his uncle's restaurant, he went on to work in the kitchen of downtown's legendary Keg & Quarter (once the unofficial home away from home for touring musicians and entertainers, and host to what has been called "the longest running rock-and-roll party" in the land). By 1978, he finally felt ready to launch his own little downtown place; in 1991, he relocated near the corner of West Third and Lakeside, and opened the Inn.
From the outside, Karl's could hardly appear more nondescript. But past the brick facade and the beer signs, its doors open onto a multilevel space that's as surprising in its size as in its neatness. A tidy deli case, a short bar backed with scores of fake law books, and a raised platform corralling a row of tables and booths make up the first level; a set of stairs leads up to two large, somewhat more formal dining spaces and a second, longer bar beyond. Thanks to big windows and an expansive skylight, all three dining areas offer an airy vibe and some profoundly urban views. Meantime, well-seasoned waitresses patrol the tables, meting out friendly smiles to regulars and newcomers alike.
The dishes on Karl's menus -- including old-timey standbys like shrimp cocktail, broiled orange roughy, and tuna-salad platters -- are nearly as commonplace as the restaurant's exterior. At lunch, standard deli fare -- Reubens, Philadelphians, and humongous corned-beef sandwiches among them -- takes the stand; at dinner, chestnuts like chicken marsala, veal parmesan, and charbroiled pork chops testify to the kitchen's traditional proclivities.
But if the food can't claim gourmet pedigrees or au courant ingredients, its righteousness resides in its simple, homey goodness. Take the Friday-night fish fry, featuring three long, slender filets of fresh lake perch, cosseted in Abounader's secret breading and fried to a golden turn. Sides of sweet, creamy cole slaw and flaccid but flavorful mac & cheese partnered well with the fish. Or consider the more ambitious Tenderloin à la Barristers, with two well-trimmed beef tenderloin slices, seasoned with lots of fresh garlic, salt, and pepper, and served with sautéed mushrooms and a red-wine reduction; on the side, a fluffy baked potato (straight from the oven, not the microwave) made a welcome addition.
At lunch, rich, homemade chicken noodle soup proved wholesome and hearty, and savory homemade chili, topped with shredded cheddar and chopped onion, offered plenty of mellow heat from Abounader's proprietary blend of seasonings.
We skipped over Karl's "famous" corned-beef sandwich, a massive pileup of freshly cooked corned beef -- nearly six inches high -- and instead opted for the Philadelphian: hot pastrami, coleslaw, and Thousand Island dressing on rye. While not as big as the corned beef, the sandwich was certainly ample; still, we would have enjoyed it more had the lean meat been shaved, rather than merely thinly sliced, and served a little bit warmer.
But we had no complaints at all about the lush, juicy Snuggery burger: eight ounces of ground Black Angus beef, smothered in American cheese, bacon, grilled mushrooms, and buttery sautéed onions. Thickly cut steak fries, on the side, were frozen but tasty.
Afterward, a generous slab of fresh-tasting cheesecake provided enough cool and creamy goodness for two of us to share. Or close with twin diamonds of homemade baklava, doused in fragrant rosewater and honey, or a portion of Abounader's moist bread pudding (and see if you can guess the unconventional ingredient).
Not a cutting-edge dish in the bunch, that's for certain; and maybe that's the key argument in Karl's defense. Let the fashionable spots serve the sizzle and the style. Here, simplicity and charm are the real appeal.