518 Tremont St.
Chattanooga, Tennessee 37405
7 a.m.-12 a.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
There are some places that really have character . and then there are some places that really have multiple characters mishmashed in a maniacal, erratic vortex of offbeat being. Aretha Frankensteins is one such place. With a style and soul all its own, it’s become one of the most popular Chattanooga haunts in recent years, and the restaurant has even gotten “a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T” in the national media with a visit from Rachel Ray as well.
The menu mainly consists of an eclectic mix of breakfast-type foods and lunch options in a funky format. The menu also clearly states to be prepared to wait, and they will hold you to that, no matter how busy it is. I’ve been there on several occasions, and that’s always been the case. So if you don’t have time to spend, look elsewhere. However, most of the reason for the wait is that everything is cooked to order, and many of the menu options take time to make: in their wee foodstuffs-lab in the back, there are mad scientists tinkering with these concoctions, indeed.
Thus, when I walked in on this slow evening, I knew what I was in for: turtle-type service, interesting atmosphere and fresh food. And, as expected, that’s exactly what I received-consistency is one of Aretha Frankensteins’ finer attributes. And I’m not just talking about slow food service, which is somewhat understandable: I’m talking about the wait staff. This server wasn’t as slow as others I’ve had there, but there were barely any customers on this occasion, and she just seemed unfriendly and uninterested with checking on the table the whole evening.
A quick tip: One sure-fire way to know you are going to wait extra-long is by either ordering a biscuit or having a dish that includes one. These biscuits are towers, and to get them to rise that high takes time. One of the dishes I ordered included one, so it wasn’t going to be quick-they aren’t using Bisquick, after all-but I will get to the biscuit when the food arrives.
So while we are still waiting for the food, let us explore the décor of this aberrant establishment, shall we? It’s one good way to pass the time, and it is an interesting attribute of the place.
One of the tables is an old flattop Ms. Pac-Man machine, so that’s where I sat, of course, both for nostalgia purposes and to watch Ms. Pac-Man chomping pellets, fruit and ghosts while waiting to do some of my own chomping-digital food pellets and ghosts are not on the menu, unfortunately, but they do have some fruit. Other notable highlights include a TV in an old picture frame, a beer tap from an antique diving helmet, a vintage espresso machine and other random knick-knacks scattered throughout the place. The outdoor dining area is surrounded by jagged stone walls leading up to the patio, which surrounds the small interior space of the old, creaky house this place was converted from. The whole place has a whimsical, sinister vibe.
And finally, the food arrived after about 30 minutes, which is quick in the Aretha’s time portal, even on a slow night, and especially when your order includes a dish with a biscuit.
This particular dish was the shrimp and grits. I’ve had this dish before, and, as I stated previously about consistency, it was just as sublime as I remembered it. Cooked in a Charleston style, the ratio of grits to melted cheese, peppers and hot pepper sauce was quite fantastic, and I would venture to say this dish would change many people’s minds who aren’t too keen on grits.
Aretha Frankensteins isn’t afraid to go BIG in many of their menu options, and the shrimp and grits dish is a perfect example of that. The succulent jumbo shrimp were perfectly cleaned and well-seasoned, and the huge chunks of bacon scattered throughout this conglomeration provided a nice porky undertone to the heat of the peppers and sauce and creaminess of the cheese in a magnum opus of grits that were not at all grit-y. And then there was the biscuit. This huge, fluffy leaning tower of carbohydrates was a perfect tool for mopping up this masterpiece, and the flavor of the flaky biscuit itself had a buttermilk tang with a slight aftertaste of sweetness.
Speaking of BIG, I also ordered a double stack of pancakes, which is by far their signature dish, as the batter mix can be ordered online and bought at some grocery stores around town. The triple stack is available too, and I assume many newcomers have gone for the triple unaware of what they were in for and ended up with much more food than originally planned. The Aretha Frankensteins pancake is an appetizing-ethereal-abomination of mad genius with an emphasis on the “cake” part of the word. It’s a monstrous thing, representing more of a traditional cake layer than the flat disks you would normally associate with a pancake.
Butter is provided, as with any pancake, but with these, it really isn’t needed. And honestly, you don’t even need to put very much maple syrup on them, either, as the flavor is slightly sweet and buttery on its own. Of course, these condiments certainly add to the flavor, but even if you snag an area not occupied by butter and syrup, you won’t miss it much because the moist cake doesn’t need to be drowned to cover for dryness. I didn’t even bother with the butter, but I did put some syrup drizzles throughout the stack for an extra maple sugar kick. The consistency of the crispy, golden outer crust with the buttery-sweet, fluffy interior was heavenly, much like having just enough firmness on the top of a cloud for one to gently pitter-patter around.
With the last dish, I went for a vegetarian option. The “Trehugger” is a grilled hoagie roll stuffed to the max with a concoction of scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, onions, mushrooms, garlic and jalapeños, and it is smothered with cheese. I am very picky when it comes to scrambled eggs. They must be soft and creamy with no browning whatsoever-pulled from the heat the moment they fully solidify-or I don’t really care for them much. I am pleased to say these eggs met that expectation. The crispy potatoes were flavorful, and the jalapeños and garlic really gave this sandwich a nice bite. The grilled hoagie wasn’t soggy, providing a solid housing for all this madness, and the kettle chips were extremely crunchy and well-seasoned.
To cap off this meal I pondered: beer for dessert? Why, yes. Yes, I think I will. There are very few things tastier to me than the rich, creamy stoutness of a Guinness. Now plopping a scoop of vanilla ice cream down into a pint of this Irish black gold? Well that’s just unfair-and that’s exactly what the “Irish Cue-Ball” is: an extremely indulgent beer float. The vanilla ice cream melded into the undertones of chocolate and roasted barley in the Guinness, creating what can be best described as a creamy, sweet and stout, cold soup. Watching the jig of these silky masses amalgamating through a clear glass is a dance to behold.
However, for me to witness this frolicking mix of sweet dairy and fermented roasted barley I had to flag down the server, after watching her stand there talking with other members of the staff for about 10 minutes, trying to make eye contact with her. I’ve waited tables, so I understand if a server is busy, but it was extremely slow, and that didn’t speed up the table service at all throughout the entire evening.
However, that didn’t bother me nearly as much as the payment for the meal. If an extra dollar bill is tacked on, that is one obvious clue change isn’t necessary, but when it’s all larger bills, the proper protocol is to ask if change is needed. I was planning to give the whole thing, anyway-which was slightly more than 15 percent for mediocre service, and I tip much more when it is deserved, having worked for tips many years myself-but she simply snatched up the money without saying a word-no “thank you” or “goodbye”-and never returned, leaving a bad aftertaste to the whole experience.
I am giving Aretha Frankensteins 2 stars for excellent, quality food for the price range-which is what keeps people coming back despite the wait time and slow service-and the darkly whimsical, funky atmosphere. Just make sure if you are going to be at this place that you don’t have another place to be at anytime soon.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can follow him on Twitter or contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.