AS THE COWBOYS AND THE PACKERS TOOK to the field, a roar went up from the throng. “I can’t believe how many people are here tonight,” said Maggie Smith, whose eponymous café recently reopened, after a ten-month hiatus, as a sports pub. “This is my busiest night in a long time!”
|Photo by B. A. Nilsson|
“People don’t want to pay too much for food,” she reasons. “Not with gas prices and other expenses being what they are.” And so she changed the layout, the look, the menu. All pretense of fanciness was dropped, pub fare moved to the fore, and TVs went in. Lots of them. Eighteen jumbo-sized high-definition screens, surrounding you with a numbing area of visuals and sound, typically tuned to any number of simultaneous sporting events.
Unless it’s a Big Event, such as a showdown between Dallas and Green Bay. We dined early enough to get our meal in before the start of the game, but this also meant my threesome was more and more crammed in place as the surrounding tables swelled with patrons – swelled into the already narrow aisles.
Yet it didn’t feel uncomfortable, and that’s the beauty of the place. Smith herself is so outgoing, so eager to please, that it sets an infectious spirit. Her servers are busy but attentive, the feeling so joyful that you ultimately don’t mine the mêlée.
The menu will have changed fairly substantially by the time you read this. Some of the more inventive items are being dropped – “people in this area aren’t always enthusiastic about food that’s different,” says Smith – and more entrées are being added, so that there will be over a dozen of them available for dinner. “We’re adding chicken parm, eggplant parm, sandwiches like hot roast beef, hot turkey and Reubens. We’re going to drop the crabmeat quesadilla in favor of one made with chicken.”
We sampled blackened fish tacos ($9), served with lime cabbage and guacamole, a hearty forum for a hearty-tasting fish, but that’s one of the items getting bumped. “I’ll put it on as a special, though,” Smith says. “It’s been slowly getting popular, but I want to make sure I serve it only when I have fresh fish.”
But there are chicken wings, of course ($8), with a variety of sauces; chicken tenders for a dollar less, onion rings ($6), waffle fries ($8 due to the many unlisted extras) and fried mozzarella ($7). Want a seafood snack? Clams with garlic and beer ($10), clams casino ($8), and the novel shrimp with a cocktail (you get a martini with the critters for $10).
Fried calamari is accompanied by a novel compote of spicy pepperoncini and sweet cherry peppers mixed with lemon butter ($7), and a marinara option is part of the new menu. Spinach and artichoke dip ($7) is the traditional dip, with lots of asiago cheese, served in a gratinée dish with piles of multicolored tortilla chips.
The Texas sirloin chili ($7) makes at least a nod toward Texas by boasting good beef and a well-rounded array of seasoning, but then it goes all northeast by including beans and cheese – but that’s what locals like, and I’m sure it’ll past muster with most.
A bowl of homemade New England clam chowder is $5 and worth it, with plenty of fish in a thick, rich base. Again, nothing exceptional, but pub food is all about satisfying expectations.
As is the case with the burgers. They’re in the $7-$9 range, depending on topping; mine was at the high end because I ordered the Joe DiMaggio, replete with bacon, mushrooms and cheese. Several other types of sandwich are available, along with a build-it-yourself personal pizza ($5 for cheese, a buck for each extra topping).
The restaurant’s Italian roots show in the entrée selection, which (on the old menu, at least) includes rigatoni Neapolitan ($11), spaghetti with sausage and broccoli rabe ($12), cioppino ($16), pasta carbonara ($12) and angel hair with tomatoes, garlic and basil ($12).
Maggie’s chef, Carlos Perez, has a background in hotel banquet food, and thus is adept at turning out the desired style and quantity.
With a couple of beers apiece to mellow the evening and give the repast an even more cheerful cast, we marveled at the swell of excitement as the crowd around us warmed to the prospect of the game. It was an infectious energy, almost a threatening one, especially as my friends and I were discussing Broadway shows. But Maggie makes everyone feel welcome, and that’s the beauty of this place.
Maggie's Café, 1186 Western Ave., Albany, 935-2661. A sports pub with a plethora of high-definition TVs and a menu of appropriate pub fare. Serving Mon-Thu 11:30-11:30, Fri-Sat 11:30-1, Sun 11:30-9. All major credit cards.
– Metroland Magazine, 6 December 2007