Bob’s Southern Bistro has been serving up soul food and Southern fare for over 50 years. Located on Columbus Avenue just south of Massachusetts Avenue, it draws a diverse mix of tourists and residents from Boston’s South End and nearby Roxbury. A recent renovation and a name change made an already upscale restaurant even more upscale. It’s a warm and friendly room, with high ceilings, brightly painted walls and lots of modern art, much of it jazz-themed. There’s a small bar near the main entrance that has a view to the stage at the far end of the room. The restaurant is open seven nights a week, with live jazz entertainment on weekend evenings and a jazz brunch on Sundays. Lunch isn't available on weekdays.
The menu straddles the worlds of Cajun, soul and barbecue, with soul offerings dominant. Appetizers include Cajun chicken strips, Cajun fried shrimp, Cajun crab cakes, “glorifried” chicken wings and a ribs and wings sampler. Main dishes (“Grammy Winners” on the menu) include meatloaf, smothered pork chop, chicken livers, mustard fried catfish, a nightly "Soul Fish" special, barbecued spare ribs and chicken (baked, barbecued or glorifried). Lighter fare includes a few salads and a sautéed vegetable medley.
My wife and I had visited Bob’s a few years ago and returned recently to find it even more polished but basically the same joint: comfort food in an upscale setting. We received corn muffins shortly after being seated, and they were very good: slightly sweet with enough baking powder to supply a savory balance. Looking back, I wish I bought a few of these (75 cents each) for the next morning's breakfast.
We started with the "glorifried" chicken wings ($5.95 for 4 whole wings), made with a spice combination that's been a secret for 50 years. These were very large wings, served piping hot on a bed of baby spinach. The thin, crisp batter had a very pleasing flavor and the insides were moist. I’d rank this fried chicken right up there with the best I’ve had.
Since I enjoyed the chicken, I got another taste in the chicken and ribs combo ($15.95). These had three long spare ribs and a ¼ dark meat chicken. The ribs were soaked in a red barbecue sauce that was a compromise between sweet, tangy and spicy. Most bites ranged from falling-off-the-bone tender (not so good) to downright soggy, with some bites offering a little more chew (much better). I’m not usually a fan of the baked-and-stewed rib (I seriously doubt these were smoked) that's commonly found in soul food restaurants, but these were pretty good for what they were. I much preferred the chicken, which was just as good as on the appetizer. My wife’s mustard fried catfish ($12.95) was decent: very crunchy, with a much thicker batter than on the chicken, and tender fish with a good flavor inside.
For sides, we tried collard greens, cabbage and black-eyed peas over rice. The collards were cooked down to a soft consistency while the cabbage was more crisp. The black-eyed peas were firm and intensely flavored. Overall, the sides (all meatless) were very good.
Parking is extremely tough to find in this area, but there's a lot ($12) right around the corner on Northampton Street.
With entertainment Thursday through Monday, Bob's Southern Bistro is an emerging force in the Boston jazz scene. Owner Darryl Settles is also an organizer of the Beantown Jazz Festival, held on Columbus Avenue each September. Bob's is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a number of special events planned throughout 2007. Check their website for details.
The bottom line: If you like the idea of soul food in an upscale setting with live music, you'll probably have a very enjoyable experience here. Just don't expect serious barbecue.