Sandwiched between Towson and Waverly, Belvedere Square has long had a mixed identity. Middlebrow bars like Swallow at the Hollow and Jerry's Belvedere Tavern attract those nonplussed by upper-crust offerings like Grand Cru and Atwater's. Drunk college kids rally at Zen West and various York Road bars while the likes of SRB hang out at Ryan's Daughter. Increasingly, though, the area is developing a yuppie-centric character, and Spike Gjerde's Shoo-Fly Diner (510 E. Belvedere Ave.,  464-9222, shooflydiner.com) affirms that.
It dispenses with the retro-diner atmosphere (and the modern decor of the space's predecessor, Crush) in favor of the rustic-yet-posh look we've come to expect after Gjerde establishments like Woodberry Kitchen and Artifact Coffee. The front area of Shoo-Fly has been divided by a wooden partition that allows for a counter for bargoers on one side and booths on the other. The bar is unvarnished; behind it, liquor and old-fashioned glassware sit on shelves made of rough-hewn wooden beams. Two counters jut out from the kitchen downstairs; water glasses, paper menus/placemats, and silverware are already set out, awaiting patrons. Servers are dressed in denim.
Shoo-Fly's attitude toward these criteria seems ambivalent, as reflected in both the decor and the menu. The comfort-food fare nods at classic diner selections-meat loaf, sausage and gravy, egg salad on toast-then elevates them. Sandwiches and entrees are filling, but you won't leave with leftovers or a busted gut. And while prices aren't quite as steep as those at Woodberry Kitchen, a meal here, or even drinks, can add up. All of this is to be expected, though, because Shoo-Fly is a Gjerde outlet first and a diner second.
Our real quibble has to do with Shoo-Fly's hours, advertised online as 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. every day. Surely, that's the best option in Belvedere for a late-night meal. But on a Sunday night at 9 p.m., the kitchen was closed. Our bartender told us that the flow of customers had been slow. While the diner is still getting established, it seems, the kitchen will have shorter hours in the beginning of the week. That's understandable, but we would have appreciated information that says as much on the minimalist website, which doesn't have more than a logo, contact info, and its hours listed.
That disappointment was compounded by most of the dishes we ate at Shoo-Fly. A serving of Arkansas truffles ($5) truly looked tasty, fried up in copious tawny-colored batter. But biting into the paper-thin squash inside the underseasoned breading was more like munching on fried air. And the fish pepper ranch served alongside was milder than the standard chipotle aioli you find at your corner pub.
The potato-cheese pierogi platter ($7) was more satisfying, the creamy filling inside the admirably browned dumplings would have made serviceable mashed potatoes. But with sweet caramelized onions and a huge dollop of sour cream, the overall flavor lacked contrast. It was in dire need of more butter-salted butter.
The Chesapeake crab roll we ordered at the recommendation of our server (whose demeanor and service were excellent) made us feel snookered, since it was the most expensive sandwich on the menu at $16. After trying it, every other option sounds more promising. Stuffed in between two slices of good, thick toasted bread, the crab was stringy and slightly fishy. Like the pierogi, the sandwich's flavor was overwhelmed by sweetness from the crab, the mayo, and the bread. A garnish of bitter greens sat on top, and we would have preferred if it had been chopped up and integrated into the salad. Unsalted potato chips also failed to add any dimension; they were so thin, they practically dissolved upon touching the tongue.
We had mixed feelings about the breaded chicken claw unabashedly reaching out of the cast-iron basket that fried chicken supper ($24) was served in. You can't eat it (though our server said some people like to chew on it) and while it's a neat touch, it's liable to freak out more than a few diners. Like the fried squash, beautifully colored breading was amply padded onto the chicken. The breast, thigh, and wing were decent, especially when dipped into the milky pepper gravy, but they were more greasy than juicy. After we finished, the wax-paper lining was slicked down on the cast iron underneath. The slightly sour braised greens were our favorite part of the dish, and though we liked the spicy-sugary cornbread, it wasn't especially memorable.
That seemed to be the theme of our dinner: The food was technically correct and looked promising, but nothing was so unforgettably delicious that it would call us back to Shoo-Fly-except for the Force of Nature nog ($12). The bartender mixed chocolate soft-serve ice cream with a molasses-based rum, then spiked it with Woodberry Kitchen's Snake Oil fish pepper hot sauce, making a rich, boozy milkshake with dimension. The other concoctions we tried-the 4 O'Clock Manhattan ($7) and the bourbon-cider slushee ($10), both made with house-made mixes churning in juice dispensers-weren't as well-balanced, showing a heavy-handedness when it came to bitters.
Shoo-Fly's family-friendly environs (it has a playroom and a slide) will be welcomed by parents who want a nice meal but can't leave the kids at home. The yuppie segment of Belvedere Square will embrace it, glad one of the city's beloved restaurateurs picked them. The diner can afford to skate by on Gjerde's reputation for now, but we'd like to see touches more thoughtful than a fried chicken foot or slushee machines.
Shoo-Fly Diner is open every day from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. To see more pictures of Shoo-Fly, please visit citypaper.com/shoofly.