"The Green Book of Giggle Waters" is printed on the cocktail menu at 534 Scratch Kitchen, a swank restaurant in the heart of Parramore. "Giggle Waters" is a reference to Prohibition-era poisons, but "The Green Book" pays homage to the motorists' guide of the same name published between 1936 and 1966 that was an essential resource to Black travelers, particularly those venturing to, shall we say, the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line. Not only did the guide highlight and recommend friendly hotels, gas stations, bars and restaurants, but it helped roadtrippers avoid the life-threatening aspects of Southern hospitality. Today, in 2020, the subtle reminder carries extra weight, especially inside this Black-owned restaurant housed in a historic building erected nearly a century ago.
"Today is a good day," is painted on the side of the building, which made me think about how few good days we've had in the past six months. But I don't want to pooh-pooh the ethos owner Tim Green is trying to instill at 534, because it does feel good inside this restaurant – which is a beaut, BTW. After an extensive renovation in 2017 that exposed the building's gorgeous brick walls, the restaurant opened as the District Gastrobar last year, but was soon purchased by Green, who renamed it. It's got the moody lighting, high-backed leather booths and general mien of a steakhouse, but it's also got a Cotton Club sort of vibe, and a feel of community – of belonging – that you'd never find at a Ruth's Chris.
Steaks, like the 20-ounce blackened ribeye ($29.95), comprise a sliver of the menu overseen by chef Eugene Astril, who did a stint as head chef at Fleming's Steakhouse. (A smaller portion of that ribeye was offered as part of the Bite30 menu. Paired with a trio of lobster rolls and tiramisu for just $30? That was a great deal.)
The steak wasn't a USDA Prime cut, but it was cooked right and came with broccolini and garlicky Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. The lobster rolls, regularly $14.95, had a good amount of meat between a trio of mini butter rolls sauced with a saffron butter. Eating all three would be a meal in and of itself.
The salmon came heavily touted by our genial (and masked) server, who suggested we get the crab cake sliders as well. We expected a smaller cut of salmon and a smaller cut is precisely what we got – about a third the size of a typical fillet ($22). The rosemary-marinated fish was crusted in panko before being seared on a flat top and finished off in the oven. It was given a Cajun glaze and topped with ... pico de gallo. I know, you're thinking pico de gallo??? Yes, and it somehow worked. The crab cake sliders (regularly $13.95) had a wicked kick and employed those soft mini butter rolls.
That said, 534's menu is just too big, with 60 or so items comprising everything from wings and tacos to hoagies and shrimp cocktails. It needs to be pared in half – a focused menu is a happy menu. But that didn't stop us from trying the margherita pizza ($9.95), a New York-ish style pie with a somewhat underseasoned crust. No matter, we downed it, the excess flour dusting the black linen tablecloth white, prior to sinking our teeth into two desserts: a cheesecake with strawberry glaze and tiramisu with caramel drizzle.
As jazz played overhead, we sipped on our Wells'Built Summer Breezes ($15), a tropical concoction fashioned from passion fruit vodka and coconut rum. It's named for the South Street hotel once listed in the Green Book, now a museum of African American history and culture. It's a couple of blocks away from the restaurant and a must-visit for everyone who lives in or visits this town. After the experience, you'd do well to sniff out 534 Scratch.