Pub Grub

A friend of mine called last week to say he’d gone to The Gaf (7122 Wornall Road) to see if the rumor he’d heard was true: that the new Irish pub in the former Romanelli Grill space was attracting a younger, hipper clientele. The venerable Romanelli Grill, a Waldo institution since the 1930s, was better known in recent years as the favorite neighborhood dining room for the over-60 crowd. When I reviewed the joint three years ago (“John Knox Vittles,” October 31, 2002), I caught hell from some readers for calling it a “blue-hair hangout.”

Well, it was what it was, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The food was mediocre, but it was inexpensive and there was a quiet gentility to the place. But back to The Gaf. My friend went on a weeknight and said, “It looks nice inside, but the crowd was still the cane-and-walker contingent. I only saw two people under 50.”

I had to see for myself, so last week I made my first foray to The Gaf, taking along my friend Patrick, who recently moved to Waldo. Stepping through the front door, I was stunned by the beautiful face-lift that the new owners, James O’Brien and his brother-in-law, Ray Dunlea (a native of Ireland), had given the place. The ugly green carpet has been replaced by shiny hardwood floors, the walls are now buttercup-yellow, and there’s a stone fireplace in the dining room.

I hardly recognized the stylish interior, but the clientele wasn’t much different from my last visit. Patrick and I were the youngest diners in the room by at least 20 years. The septuagenarians at the next table were adorable but had evidently neglected to turn up their hearing aids — they practically yelled at each other through the entire meal.

The food is vastly improved, thanks to the skill and imagination of 6-foot-6-inch-tall chef Jason Hill, who has wisely kept Romanelli’s signature fried catfish on the menu but added dishes such as Irish beef stew, roasted free-range chicken and tortellini al carbonara.

I loved my dinner — a hearty bowl of penne and sliced, balsamic-glazed chicken tossed with spinach, parmagiano-reggiano and pine nuts. Patrick noted that the dish called osso buco on the menu was actually a beautiful, fork-tender, British-pub-style lamb shank. “It’s terrific,” he said, “but it’s not osso buco.”

Another big change: Dinners are no longer wheeled out on plastic carts. “We had cart races with them during the renovation,” says Ray’s wife, Molly Dunlea.

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