It was four decades ago that little Marcie Turney first walked up to the huge bar at the Spot, her grandparents' supper club in Ripon, Wis., and ordered herself a Shirley Temple.
Such confidence was no doubt prophetic for a 5-year-old girl who'd someday grow up to be chef and co-owner of several wildly popular restaurants of her own. But the emotion of the memories still wash over Turney like a fresh cocktail.
There was even a catch in her throat as she talked about those childhood holiday visits, frolicking in her grandpa Bud Briese's big basement kitchen at the Spot, where broiler chickens and prime rib roasted alongside fish fries and what he claimed was Wisconsin's first thin-crust pizza. She remembers her grandma Marilyn policing the ashtrays and running the front of the house like "the boss lady" - a term of affection she says equally applies to her partner and style-master, Valerie Safran.
"I just cook here," Turney says of their latest creation, Bud & Marilyns, at the corner of 13th and Locust.
But it's clear from the deeply steeped American comforts that anchor the menu here that Bud & Marilyn's is Turney's most personal reflection to date. After a career that has roamed from Mexico (Lolita) to India (Bindi), Spain (Jamonera), to the Mediterranean (Barbuzzo) and the Italian American tradition (Little Nonna's), returning to the art of fried cheese curds and stuffed meat loaf feels just like coming home.
The cocktail list brings back some nice oldies with well-mixed riffs on the old-fashioned, a refreshingly balanced sloe gin fizz, tiki mug whimsies, and an electric-blue cannonball as big as a fishbowl (but so much tastier). The throwback fabrics, chunky glassware, flea market knickknacks, and cushy banquettes give this exceedingly noisy corner room a decidedly retro buzz. There's even a big needlepoint of ducks on a pond framed in the bathroom.
But in this year of many retro restaurants, it's promising that Bud & Marilyn's is not slavishly old-fashioned in its cooking practice. From the pu pu platter to the mini-lobster "hot buttered buns," Turney treats the nostalgia plates more as a point of departure to be updated with better ingredients, scratch-baked breads, and her signature shred-pile garnishes of seasonal produce.
At its best, this food is craveably soulful, like the genuine cheese curds from Wisconsin's Ellsworth Co-op Creamery fried inside a shatteringly delicate crust (the secret? no egg in the batter) that comes with a guajillo pepper dip. The stuffed meat loaf, a welcome revival from Turney's days at Judy's, gets upgraded with Pat LaFrieda dry-aged beef and veal, sautéed Swiss chard, and oozy fontina.
A house-smoked link of garlicky kielbasa comes paired with butter-crisped pierogi. Warm and flaky biscuits with salted honey butter are irresistible beside a scoop of spicy-creamy pimento cheese with the "pork 'n' pickles" platter, a stellar array of cured American hams (Wigwam, Surryano, La Quercia's hot coppa) that arrive with an excellent house terrine beneath a billowing sail of crispy fried pork skin.
There were some moments of disappointment on should-be slam dunks. The fried chicken, for example, was superbly moist from its brine. But the crust was clumsily thick and overseasoned with a curry whose unlikely dominant note of cinnamon was off-key. Likewise for the sharp tang of horseradish, which rang like a pungent interloper in the comfort cream drizzled over a braised short rib Stroganoff with fresh noodles. A "wedge" salad should have been a winner with its upgraded Buttermilk Blue crumbles, Nueske bacon, and Thai basil green goddess dressing. But it was cut into more of a stump than a wedge, and it lost the vibrant crunch that comes from the classic salad's usual angled shape.
I loved the idea of a fresh reinvention of the canned La Choy chop suey dinners Turney grew up eating. But although the Bud & Marilyn version was certainly a flavorful rice stir-fry tossed with fresh veggies and country ham, the additional elements of kohlrabi kimchi and a fried egg were far more evocative of a Korean bibimbap. And don't even ask me where the Vietnamese chicken pâté fits into the nostalgia theme here - except that it's something creamy and good that Turney likes to eat. It's also another good reason to eat the butter-crisped slices of B&M's excellent house-baked brioche.
That thread of general deliciousness intrinsic to most things coming from this kitchen is enough to pull some of the more muddled dishes through to solid satisfaction. The "hot buttered bun" split-top brioche rolls, for example, are overstuffed and awkward to eat, the rolls not deep enough for more than a pinch-like grip on their fillings, the garnishes piled too high. But the spicy fried Nashville hot chicken breasts with pickles are undeniably irresistible, as was the moist lobster roll salad tossed with curried mayo and shredded green apples.
Some of the best dishes here strayed unapologetically from the throwback theme altogether. The excellent seared scallops, shingled between silver-dollar corn cakes over creamy leeks and pancetta, offered a satisfying contrast in the sweetness of sea and field, the scallops' freshness heightened against the earthiness of Castle Valley's Bucks County ground corn. Another worthy look at that corn bounty - cheddary grits spread over a wooden plank topped with roasted romesco and sautéed mushrooms, would have been just as suited to the menu at Barbuzzo - and just as devourable, too.
If I have a primary complaint, it's that this multi-sectioned menu urges diners toward multiple courses but lands on the heavy side in both portion and preparation. By the time your table has munched through a pu pu platter (spicy tamarind chicken wings, shrimp toast, tuna poke, teriyaki skirt steak), some buttered buns, and maybe a squash salad topped with fried hush puppies and grated cheese, the prospect of a one-pound porterhouse pork chop over parsnip puree with a grilled apple loses both appeal and impact.
It didn't help that one of the restaurant's most intriguing dishes, a skillet-baked coil of dough rolled around Brussels sprouts leaves, potatoes, cheddar, and onions, was underbaked and doughy. The fact that we ate it all, nonetheless, with that labne yogurt dip is a testament to its magnetic potential.
That dessert is also required at a Turney restaurant is usually a foregone conclusion. And Bud & Marilyn's doesn't disappoint . . . mostly. Once again, the kitchen stifles itself by adding an unnecessary top crust to an otherwise great pecan pie. A coconut cream pie was good and rich but held back from great by the artificial echo of extract and the distraction of sesame praline. For each of those mild letdowns, though, the cake shop delivered a "funfetti" success. And my favorite was the tall slice of moist chocolate cake layered with peanut butter buttercream and a chocolate ganache crackling with mini-malt balls.
For longtime fans of the Turney-Safran restaurants, it's no-nonsense indulgence like that, plus a complete experience thoughtfully crafted with personality, outgoing service, and good ingredients (if not necessarily finesse), that will make Bud & Marilyn's a nostalgia trip still worth taking.
VERY GOOD (two out of four bells)
BUD & MARILYN'S
1234 Locust St., Philadelphia; 215-546-2220, budandmarilyns.com.
With a restaurant portfolio on 13th Street that already strides from Mexico to the Mediterranean, Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran have added a lively corner space serving retro American comforts inspired by Turney's grandparents' old supper club in Wisconsin. The banquette-lined room is noisy and fun, with well-made cocktails and an evocative retro decor. Turney's menu offers appealing modern takes on familiar dishes, from fried cheese curds to mini-lobster rolls and stuffed meat loaf. But note: These hearty nostalgia plates, despite their updates, can also add up to a surprisingly heavy meal.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Pork 'n' pickles; pu pu platter; skillet bread; fried cheese curds; Castle Valley grits; hot buns (Nashville hot chicken; lobster rolls); kielbasa; stuffed meat loaf; scallops and corn cakes; pork porterhouse; chocolate malt-ball cake.
DRINKS The cocktail list hits all the right throwback notes, with well-mixed tiki drinks, a tequila-laced electric-blue cannonball, several old-fashioned riffs, and a refreshingly balanced sloe gin fizz. The all-American wine list is small, relatively affordable, and adequate, if not necessarily exciting. The beer list offers more satisfying options, with craft drafts from Dogfish, Founders, and Yards (try the restaurant's signature "Bud's Best" English pale), and worthy bottles form Weyerbacher, Boulevard, and Lost Abbey.
WEEKEND NOISE The room can be so noisy at 95 decibels, it can be hard to hear a server, let alone your tablemates. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less).
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until midnight. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner entrees, $18-$24.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested. (Space is always set aside for walk-ins.)
Street and lot parking only.