Restaurant Review: Miss Shirley’s Café
Belle of the Breakfast BallBy Mary Lou Baker | Photography by Tony J. Lewis
It’s been nearly three years since Miss Shirley’s Café waltzed into town—and the restaurant named after a beloved employee is still dancing as fast as it can. It has won a reputation as a fun family destination and on my visits there were lots of strollers in evidence as well as multi-generational groups enjoying themselves. With a no-reservation policy, the lines of people outside the restaurant are a common sight on weekends and holidays and benches just inside the door are filled with would-be patrons.
Why would so many wait so patiently to eat at this basically bare-bones establishment with the décor reminiscent of a diner? Because the service is friendly and the fare is famous, having attracted the attention of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives (featuring Miss Shirley’s Coconut Cream stuffed French Toast and Bay-O Poor Boy) and earned “best” awards from a slew of publications, including the one you’re reading. Breakfast, brunch, and lunch have a starring role here, served from early morning until mid-afternoon. A special section on “Mornin’ Cocktails” features eight spirited starters, among them Shirley’s re-invention of a Bloody Mary—a mini-meal with its garnish pickled okra, a slice of green tomato pepper, celery, peppadew melon, green olives, and heat from a Jalapeno pepper. There are Shirley Temples for the children, keeping them occupied while their parents decide what to choose from an expansive bill of fare.
Miss Shirley’s menu is masterminded by corporate executive chef Brigettte Bledsoe, who also orchestrates the menu at Miss Shirley’s other locations in Baltimore’s upscale Roland Park neighborhood and on Pratt Street near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Bledsoe’s creativity is reflected in a mind-boggling choice of original variations of classics—including waffles every which-way, three-egg omelets customized with a choice of vegetables, fruit, cheeses, meats, and seafood; and sandwiches of every stripe. The style is decidedly Southern, marked by fried green tomatoes, stone-ground grits with bacon bits, house-made biscuits and corn bread, collard greens, and Miss Shirley’s Gumbo—a Cajun-spiced mix of sausage, shrimp, crawfish, okra, and tomatoes.
Two friends and I met for lunch on a busy holiday, waiting 40 minutes at an outdoor table before our hand-held buzzer told us it was time to go inside. Service was swift, with water delivered immediately and coffee (described as “organic, local, and Fair Trade) so good it got smiles all around. It took us a while to make decisions from so many tempting choices so we ordered an appetizer of “House-Made Hot Tots” ($7.99) for starters. Served on the restaurant’s signature white plates, the deep-fried rounds were filled with spinach, shitake mushrooms, and goat cheese and garnished with chive sour cream. A “bit dry” was one verdict. “I love these” was another.
Seeing we were stumped at the task of picking out the next course, our waiter helped by mentioning two house favorites—“Shirley’s Affair with Oscar” (voted Best Breakfast Dish in Maryland by Food Network Magazine) and “Not Your Baltimore Hon’s Hot Coddie.” His recommendations were on target. One of my companions, a gourmet with a picky palate, ordered the cod, and was speechless at the sight of a monster sesame-seeded Kaiser roll cushioning a thick slab of impeccably fresh fish. The typically bland fish was brightened with a smidgeon of Cajun spice, curls of fresh Boston lettuce, and a slice of fried green tomato ($14.99). She gave it high marks.
Plating (overseen by a managing chef is careful and creative here, and my choice of “Shirley’s Affair with Oscar” begged for “a selfie.” Thin, emerald green asparagus crisscrossed a five-ounce filet mignon layered on a bed of fried green tomatoes, and crowned with hollandaise sauce and a few lumps of Maryland crabmeat. It was a winning combination, sided with a scoop of creamy grits flecked with smoked bacon—the grits good enough to overshadow past experiences with this beloved Southern staple.
The breakfast girl was happy with her two over-easy fried eggs and warm biscuit but not so much with the andouille sausage she had picked from a selection that included Applewood-smoked bacon or country ham, cranberry-maple turkey, or scrapple. As a fan of this breed of sausage, I was happy to help her out.
Miss Shirley’s does not have a separate dessert section, but sweet teeth should be happy with a “Breakfast Banana Split” featuring organic honey yogurt, a whole banana piled with strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and house-made granola with nuts ($10.99). And griddlecakes come with a choice of cream cheese, banana, chocolate chip, or raspberry white chocolate. I wager you’ve not seen such a wild and crazy menu with so many options as Miss Shirley’s.
The portions are huge and the ingredients are first-rate. Local suppliers provide the vegetables, meats, and seafood and the menu changes twice a year to accommodate the seasons. But be advised. Do look for the small print that says “Mrkt” next to anything involving seafood, thus avoiding any “sticker shock” at the end of what was a most enjoyable experience.