Note: The menu at Split Rail has recently changed - we’ll be updating the review shortly.
Nostalgia is a tricky restaurant concept, since you can’t count on everyone having fond memories of a particular time period. Take the ’80s, for example. Sure, collecting Garbage Pail Kids was fun, but on the other hand, some people really resented stockpiling Chef Boyardee for the nuclear winter. Point being, you need more than a cute theme if you really want to attract people - you need food that’s good enough to stand on its own. Split Rail succeeds with this, because it’s “New Americana” menu is full of Midwestern dishes that have nostalgic touches, but also just taste good.
Physically, this place looks like a cross between a gastropub and a rec room from the ’80s. It’s dark, with shelves full of old records and houseplants you’ll worry aren’t getting enough light. And the food is similarly retro. There’s an appetizer of chips and dip that’s like something your mom might have presented when you had a friend over - but the chips are housemade and much better than Lay’s. If you have fond memories of the McDonald’s drive-thru after soccer practice, order the chicken nuggets that come with a honey-mustard sauce. (It’s disturbing how good these are - all they’re missing is the processed aftertaste of regret.) Similarly, a “loaded baked potato gnocchi” dish sounds like something stolen from a TGI Friday’s menu, but it’s fantastic - the gnocchi are pillowy and light, and they work really well with the combination of cheddar cheese, bacon, and sour cream.
Some items stray from the theme, with mixed results. The “Toast #2” has fried oysters, fig jam, and brussels sprouts, and it’s honestly just disgusting - any childhood memory of a dish like this is something you repressed a long time ago. But the lamb tartare, on the other hand, is one of the best things here, even though it’s not exactly clear why it’s on the menu.
Split Rail takes Midwestern food standbys from the ’80s/’90s-ish period and, in most cases, improves on them a whole lot. And while in general, we go out of our way not to eat Chicken McNuggets and Hamburger Helper for dinner, the food here is good enough to try at least once. You won’t be disappointed, although you may not feel the need to come back - unless you’re still trying to find a buyer for that Garbage Pail Kids collection.
This appetizer sounds very simple, and on a superficial level, it is. But the super-thin housemade chips are expertly salted and fried, and the french onion dip is fresh and flavorful. It’s served with a side of trout roe, a.k.a. rec room caviar.
Like the kind you’d get in a Happy Meal - except these taste like they’re made from real meat. It kind of freaked us out how much we liked them.
Gnocchi turns out to be a perfect vehicle for loaded potato toppings - which makes sense, when you think about it.
This is topped with fig jam, brussels sprouts, and fried oysters, and it’s very bad. The sweetness of the jam and the funkiness of the brussels sprouts don’t go well with the oysters at all, and somehow the fact that the bread itself tastes good makes the overall dish worse.
The sauce on this tastes like it was seasoned with a Hamburger Helper spice packet. That might make it sound terrible, but clearly Split Rail has a team of scientists figuring out what makes that stuff good without being gross.
We can’t decide if these are actually supposed to taste like meatloaf and gravy, or if the rest of the retro dishes on the menu just create that perception. The meatballs are tender and flavorful, and get an upgrade with a pumpkin romesco sauce. It’s a great dish.
This doesn’t really go with the theme, so we figure it’s only on the menu for one reason - someone here can make a great lamb tartare. Order it.
Broccoli is the primary ingredient in this medley, which comes with a white cheddar cheese sauce. It’s not exactly diet food, and it reminds us of a frozen Green Giant broccoli and cheese steam bag, in a bad way. It’s too heavy and doesn’t have much flavor except salt.
This sounds more like an Onion headline than something we want to eat, but the steak is cooked perfectly, it’s seasoned like fajitas, and the corn puree (a reimagined tortilla, we guess) and red pepper gelee on the plate are really good.
As you might guess based on the name, this dish has duck three ways: a roasted breast, a duck egg, and a duck leg scrumpet (that’s pressed, rolled in breadcrumbs, and fried). It’s a take on a chicken and rice dinner, and all three versions of the duck taste good, but the parsnips on the side just make us want potatoes.