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Willie's
2 1/2
Out of a possible five
$

Burger surprises at eatery

It wasn’t something new because it had been on the menu for years.

But I had never had a burger at Willie’s Family Restaurant on St. Joe Center Road before. Willie’s is known as a breakfast joint and that is pretty much the only thing I had ordered there in the past.

But the Willie Burger just sounded right on the day I stopped in there for lunch. The Willie Burger features a half-pound of fresh ground beef – two patties – smothered with cheese and grilled onions. I opted for the Willie Jr., however, which was a quarter-pound, one-patty version.

The buttery onions and gooey American cheese were classically delicious on the flavorful, perfectly cooked burger, and the bun was soft and fresh. It was simply done but done right, kind of like all of the breakfasts at Willie’s.

The Big Willie Skillet – a base of fried potatoes with cheese, sausage and three eggs all smothered in gravy – was a fine choice. There was plenty of round sausage pieces spread throughout the creamy, smooth, pristine white gravy and the eggs were perfectly runny, further coating every morsel of this behemoth of a breakfast. It also came with toast and coffee for a full meal deal.

The only thing I might have wanted was a little more cheese because it kind of got lost, but that is truly nitpicking.

I cannot nitpick at all about Willie’s pancakes. They were perfect, especially when joined by some spot-on crispy bacon. I also loved how the Mickey Mouse pancakes my kids received were garnished with Fruit Loops for the eyes and mouth as well as whipped cream, which my kids probably didn’t need but really enjoyed.

In addition to the always-good breakfasts, you also always rely on Willie’s fried fish. A standing Friday special, Willie’s makes some of the best fried pollock in the city. The breading is very light and provides the perfect coating to this moist, sweet, flaky fish. I am often asked who has the best fried fish in this fish-loving town, and I always mention Willie’s among my favorites.

The hand-breaded tenderloin was not as stellar. It was decently thick and meaty, and the breading was crisp, but it lacked flavor. It needed salt and mustard – quite a bit of it – to give it any life.

The soups I had at lunch were plenty lively. The bean soup had a lot of ham, which is not often the case with bean soups, and that ham was tender, as were the beans which still had texture and were not cooked away. It also had a loose, flavorful broth which made it a soup instead of thick main-course style ham and beans.

The potato soup also had a much looser base than its peers, but that broth was still creamy and flavorful, and it almost seemed buttery. It also had lot of bacon that stayed crisp, which was a pleasant surprise.

The meatloaf special was a nice surprise, too. There were green peppers visible in the loaf – along with onions, of course – and it had a ketchup-based topping as well is brown gravy. The gravy was mediocre at best and would have better been left off in favor of more of the sweet ketchup sauce. But, then again, my mom never used gravy so maybe I am jaded.

The loaf had a pronounced Worcestershire sauce flavor, but you could still taste the beef so that was OK. The mashed potatoes were also OK, but what wasn’t OK was the drab side of canned green beans.

Luckily, there was some Waynedale Bakery pie to be had after lunch, so I forgot about the green beans quickly. The butterscotch was tremendous and the berry cream was different and delicious, sort of a mix between cheesecake and fruit pie with plenty of whipped cream on top.

Willie’s isn’t flashy in terms of looks; it is more form than function, but it does have a little country café flair. The artificial wreaths and arrangements on the walls and some shelves are pretty and they are for sale.

There was some poor form when it came to service. Willie’s is the kind of place you just sort of expect friendly, professional service because it has been around so long and has a solid reputation for being consistent. But during one of my visits, I could not even get a refill of coffee – a true sin when it comes to breakfast joints. My server was too busy sitting at a table up front sipping her own beverage and reading the paper to worry about my coffee.

Well, at least she was reading the paper.

Restaurant: Willie’s Family Restaurant

Address: 6342 St. Joe Center Road

Phone: 485-3144

Hours: 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 4 to 8 p.m. Friday; 6 a.m. to noon Saturday; 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: No

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Willie Jr. ($5.39), fish ($7.29 sandwich; $8.29 dinner), Big Willie Skillet ($7.99), tenderloin ($7.29), meatloaf ($8.29)

Rating breakdown: Food: 1 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.​journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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