Johnnie's on the Side

The Front of the House is at the head of its class
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  December 30, 2008

CHIPS AND CHOPS: The “kettle chips” are authentic, and the pork is thick and juicy.

Johnnie’s on the Side | 617.227.1588 | 138 Portland St, Boston | Open Mon-Wed, 11:30 am-10 pm; Thurs & Fri, 11:30 am-11 pm; Sat, 4-11 Pm; and Sun, 11 am-11 pm | AE, MC, VI | Full Bar | No Valet Parking | Sidewalk-Level Access
This large space has always housed attractive restaurants, despite violating two of Nadeau's laws: Eateth Not Within 1000 Cubits of a Government Institution; and Ditto for Sports Stadia.

It has been a brew pub full of brass kettles and pipes; a seafood-and-sports bar with high windows; a wannabe bistro with red-velvet curtains; and now a bar-restaurant with a splendid collection of city and sports memorabilia, dating back to Scollay Square in the former collection and the Babe in the latter. The background music is old soul. Not many old Bostonians think of Marvin Gaye and Tony Conigliaro as contemporaries, but it works for me. The food showcases slight spins on the familiar, and as a restaurant, Johnnie's has almost all of the features I like except being too dark.

What's odd about Johnnie's on the Side is that its design — not so different from many places of its ilk — is so well done that it carried me along. A dish-by-dish analysis of the food doesn't impress, but I had a wonderful time even though the room is loud when full (and it's frequently full). The crowds suggest that I'm not alone in enjoying the lack of cynicism. What Johnnie's is missing in sophistication it makes up for with enthusiasm.

Probably the ideal thing to eat at Johnnie's are "Kettle chips" ($7) — fresh potato chips as they were invented in Saratoga, and wonderful eating. Fritto misto ($12) here is batter-fried calamari, mussels, and popcorn shrimp. The frying is very nice, though a little bready to appreciate the dip, which is a cross between pesto and chimichurri — but it's easy enough to dribble out the cup of dip onto the sizable platter of fried things. There are also fried lemons and red and green hot peppers.

Lobster chowder ($12) is thick as stew, but with more vegetables than lobster meat. The flavor is cream more than seafood, but it's a fine bowl on a cold night. Caesar salad ($9) is ordinary, except for a small toast with a couple of white anchovies on top. The mixed greens salad ($8) is the usual stuff, too, plus grape tomatoes. It's perfectly dressed.

Trout ($18) is a winning entrûe: a flavorful fish despite it being hatchery rainbow trout (wild trout have more color). It's served fully boned, which is difficult with small fish, and with an excellent side dish of pierogi — you like pasta, you like potatoes; aren't you going to like big ravioli stuffed with mashed potatoes? — tossed with bacon.

I also like the pork chop ($20), a two-incher kept juicy with a cranberry relish and a wedge of scalloped potatoes. I'm less sure about the gnocchi ($18), although I ate them all. These are the heavy kind, which may mean pre-fab, served in a heavy meat sauce of beef and chopped sausage.

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