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Sunday, August 18 Living

Jim Barbarie’s original restaurant is nice and normal

Before everyone had a computer and a link to Yelp, being a “food” critic” was a serious thing.

There were a handful of us who were considered serious tastemakers and we all wrote for big glossy magazines like Gourmet, Food and Wine, GQ or the New York Times. What we said could make or break a restaurant and our fame came yearly in the form of large heavy golden medals voted on and handed out by the James Beard Foundation.

Alan Richman won more James Beard medals than any other writer. I would like to say I hated him, but he was so talented and congenial I could not be wrathful. His platform was a monthly column in Gentleman’s Quarterly and I followed his culinary adventures around the world way back when Anthony Bourdain was still peeing in his diapers.

Each year, as most important critics did, he composed a list of “Golden Dishes,” the best meals he had eaten during his world travels. I remember looking at the list in 1994 and seeing the familiar names of Michelin-starred restaurants (most in Europe or Asia). But wait a minute, in the middle of the list was Jim Barbarie’s ,a steakhouse in Danbury.

I was shocked. Back then maybe Peter Luger in Brooklyn or the late great Christ Cella in Manhattan would get a nod. But Danbury, really?

And so of course I went there as soon as possible and for the last 25 years have been a loyal customer. As usual, Alan Richman was right.

There are now two Barbarie’s locations, one on Route 6 across from Home Goods. It is called Barbarie’s Black Angus Grill. This review is for the old original Jim Barbarie’s on Padanarum Road.

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Jim Barbarie's

47 Padanarum Road, Danbury

From the outside, the restaurant looks unexciting. I wouldn’t say boring, but nothing much has been done to catch the eye. Inside, there is a bar and the main dining room, and they too do not look showy. I can only compare the look of the place to venerable Supper Clubs and steakhouses in the midwest. Wonderfully untrendy places where people still sip old fashions and whiskey sours before dinner. I instantly fell in love with Jim Barbarie’s. I applauded how unpretentious and out of step it is with trendy dining.

Mr. Richman was quite specific in what one must eat at Jim Barbarie’s. That item is prime rib. I can’t think of anything less hip than prime rib. It is not one of those dainty composed plates of food that look like they should be hung on the wall of an art gallery, the kind of stuff celebrity chefs go wild with. Unfortunately it is foodie shorthand for letting you know there will be nothing identifiable on your plate.

You will know the prime rib when you see it. My favorite is the “king”-sized portion, a two-inch thick hunk of steer swimming in dark brown “au jus.” I ordered it with Barbarie’s delicious mashed potatoes, the real McCoy, lumps and all. My adorable young waiter (young but very well trained) brought me a small dish of sour cream spiked with enough horseradish to realign my posture. I was seated in the bar and although I usually do not care for noisy boisterous places, the laughter and good cheer was uplifting and brought a smile to my face. “I think I like people,” I thought.

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You can get various cuts of steak here as well as a full menu of seafood and poultry. I honestly can’t think of the last time I ordered a chicken dinner in a restaurant, but I did here. It was a crisp skin-on breast with mushrooms and cream gravy. It felt like home. It was an honest no frills plate of food.

This may be a strange thing to say, but the tables around me had attractive silver-haired couples eating enormous amounts of food. They kept ordering things and then ordering more. I couldn’t count courses but I remember endless plates of clam shells, and lamb chops, and filet mignons, crab legs and a signature salad topped with red-wine blue-cheese vinaigrette. These couples were there eating happily when I was seated and as I paid my bill I could hear them discuss what they would like next.

The more I reviewed the menu and took a good look at the patrons sitting at the bar and other tables the word that stuck in my head was “normal.” Here was delicious food worth going out for, happy people drinking beer, courteous waiters in an atmosphere that was perfectly uncomplicated and not a bit pretentious. “Normal” does not sound like a rave review, but I mean it as one. As a food critic I am burnt out on weird mash ups of “creative” chefs. Who wants micro greens and gimmicky craft cocktails with elderflowers and hemlock?

The world is so contentious these days I am often afraid to watch the news or follow politics. I am a mess with technology, I don’t get bitcoin or sexting and am rendered speechless at YouTube videos (watched by tens of thousands) of something like a cell phone being “unboxed.”

My meal at Jim Barbarie’s made sense to me, and made life feel normal again. It felt wonderful.

Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series.

Jane Stern|Columnist

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