Riley’s, Syracuse, N.Y.

Riley’s (from traipsathon.com)

“Hot Beef. Lousy Food. Bad Service. Welcome.”

You’re welcomed by a sign with that statement when crossing the threshold at Riley’s. The restaurant perched on the corner of Park Street and Whitwell Drive on the north side has a cult following in Syracuse, thanks to an eclectic menu, cozy feel (including a very dark dining room, which explains the grainy iPhone pictures) and first-rate food.

Riley’s is one in a long line of Syracuse-area tavern-and-grill outlets. Jake Hafner’s in North Syracuse, Hullar’s in Fayetteville, The Retreat in Liverpool…all of them promise and deliver on quality food and cold beer and each brings something unique to the table. For Riley’s, it’s a changing daily menu that goes beyond simple burgers burgers and steaks.

The menu changes daily, but for a selection of burgers, sandwiches and omelettes.

Take Friday evening, for example. We finally took our table 90 minutes after arriving (the hostess quoted us 30-40 minutes) and were met by the daily menu, led by the day’s soup and salad. The typical shrimp bisque has pureed shrimp sauteed in a tomato-cream base. Riley’s sherried shrimp bisque was a creamy tomato and sherry broth with spoon-sized whole shrimp. The daily salad featured mixed greens with arugula topped with a jicama/grape tomato/chickpea/hearts of palm salad. It was served with sliced almonds and the house vinaigrette. Both of the appetizers brought unique flavors, enhanced by the acid (sherry, vinegar).

The strong starters led to a wide selection of fresh seafood, which was the highlight of the menu. The evening’s selections included fried and broiled haddock, roasted salmon, broiled wolffish, an fresh fried oysters, clams, rock shrimp and calamari. All of the fried fish was available in a half-order as an appetizer, a basket, or a platter with rice pilaf and sauteed sugar snap peas.

The Wife’s soup
My calamari. The lighting in the restaurant was terrible.

Broiled haddock usually comes on a steel broiler tray or deep platter, swimming in butter and/or lemon juice. The Wife’s haddock was served on a platter, clear of any grease. The flaky fish was packed with garlic and lemon. My fried calamari platter featured a 60/40 ratio of rings to tentacles (I like the latter), fried in cornmeal. The fish on its own was a little bland, but enhanced by a side of the house marinara sauce .

Dinner for four, with two beers, was $120 with tip. Riley’s is located at 312 Park Street on Syracuse’s north side. It takes reservations for parties of six or more. The restaurant does not have a website.

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