Chow down with John Batchelor at Southern Lights Bistro
Highly customizable menu, from soups to salads to desserts, mainly casual bistro and Southern-influenced fare.
Casual, upscale, informal, neighborhood vibe.
Consistently pleasant, but knowledge and performance showed considerable variation.
Menu items were moderately priced.
Ratings range from Not Recommended or Acceptable to one (satisfactory), two (good), three (very good), four (excellent) or five (truly exceptional) stars.
Most recent visit: July 27
Southern Lights is one of a handful of enduring Triad restaurants. It has been a personal favorite since the earliest days of my Triad restaurant-reviewing career. Cream-colored walls, decorated with original art and photos, creates a light, open ambience. Outdoor seating is also attractive in appropriate weather. Tall tables and chairs occupy space flanking the bar, with conventional booths and tables surrounding. A separate, private dining area can be opened on busy nights, or held in reserve for large parties.
The menu is noteworthy for flexibility. Soups, available in a three small cup sampler as well as cup and bowl, usually represent strength from this kitchen. Tomato-Basil Bisque is smooth and richly flavored, one of the best renditions of this perennial favorite you are likely to encounter in our area. White Bean earns similar praise with pieces of chorizo sausage that add range. I was less impressed with the Seafood Chowder, which I have liked here in years past. I ordered it on two occasions, and found a mild, back fin-crabby flavor and flecks of what might have been clam both times.
The make-your-own salad section of the menu allows you to select ingredients from a checklist. I consider this a great idea, and all the ingredients exhibit quality. Three menu salad choices, half portions available, include Cobb, Caesar, and Mediterranean. In the latter, green peas, capers, red onion slices, olives, artichoke hearts, banana peppers, and feta cheese are interspersed with leaf lettuce. My serving included a lot of capers, creating a sharp impact. Dressings are made in-house, and proteins can be added to create light meals.
Three appetizers are listed on the menu: Cheese and Fruit Plate, Hummus Plate, and White Bean Dip with Neese’s Sausage. The latter tastes really good if you like cheese flavor; I found no evidence of white beans and only a few flecks of sausage. Warm pita wedges host each bite. An off-menu starter, Fried Brussels Sprouts, was joined by lots of blue cheese and walnuts, drizzled in balsamic syrup. The main ingredient provided the lowest flavor impact, but the overall effect was good.
The Fried Oyster Salad presents five medium-sized oysters, pleasantly crisp, albeit dryish, over baby spinach, with julienned carrot, squash, and zucchini, plus real bacon and blue cheese, all dressed in Dijon vinaigrette.
The Reference Burger was so named because it occupied an elite status. A brioche bun hosts Romaine lettuce and a tomato slice, enhancing a large, tender patty that emits good beef flavor. In a town where burger bars seem to populate virtually every available space, this compares favorably, albeit no longer at an unchallenged level.
Set entrées tend toward a comfort food style. I am especially enamored with Fried Chicken- a crisp exterior, the interior cooked all the way to the bone, but still moist and tender.
This comes with al dente green beans, tossed in butter, and a unique version of macaroni and cheese- spiral pasta coated with creamy Gouda cheese, scattered with fried sausage. Grilled Salmon emits a mild level of flavor, fresh, no fishy aftertaste, accompanied by mashed potatoes and on the evening my wife and I had it, sliced zucchini and yellow squash- good, but if I never saw these ubiquitous vegetables in another restaurant, my life would be none the lesser for the lack.
In Chili-Garlic Shrimp, four jumbos, deveined and cooked just right, are placed over coconut-flavored rice, all ladled with a hot chili sauce. The sauce obliterates any semblance of any other flavor. I like hot and spicy food, but this was out of my league.
The rice, if carefully spooned to avoid the sauce, actually does bear a pleasant coconut flavor. Sliced zucchini and yellow squash, al dente, provide an ordinary, albeit needed, vegetable component. Tuscan Meatloaf blends pork, beef, and sausage. I rated the flavor OK, the texture dryish, but I am at a loss to understand why it is called “Tuscan.” Brown gravy adds moisture, plus acceptable but undistinguished flavor — good mashed potatoes and al dente green beans complete the plating.
A chalkboard list and menu insert of specials complete the menu. In what is termed the “small pasta” of the day, three medium-large scallops had been seared dark brown, but still tender, presented in cream sauce. Leaves of spinach lent a semblance of vegetable; more would have been welcome. Flounder was ample in size, bearing a rather coarse coating, fried crisp. The coleslaw was constructed around green cabbage and slivered carrot in pleasant slaw dressing. French fries bore an appropriately crisp exterior, dosed with pepper, delivering good potato flavor.
Desserts can be ordered in conventional portions or bite-sized “shooters,” a brilliant idea in my estimation. All are homemade.
Service during this review period has been consistently pleasant, but knowledge, pacing, and accuracy varied quite a bit.
Chef-owner John Drees worked with Southern Lights founder Peter Hamilton (who died almost 20 years ago) for 26 years, entering into a partnership in 1989. I ran into him on my last visit, but I don’t think I was recognized before that. He acknowledged some personnel issues but assured that he was in the process of addressing them.
On balance, I was not as pleased here as I have been in the past. Based on long term experience, however, I will continue to return, and I anticipate more consistently positive experiences in the future. Watch my blog, for commentary on follow up visits.
John Batchelor has been writing about eating and drinking since 1981. Over a thousand of his articles have been published. He is also author of two travel/cookbooks: Chefs of the Coast: Restaurants and Recipes from the North Carolina Coast, and Chefs of the Mountains: Restaurants and Recipes from Western North Carolina. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or see his blog, johnbatchelordiningandtravel.blogspot.com
Southern Lights, 2415-A Lawndale Drive, Greensboro, 27408, (336) 379-9414. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Sunday. Appetizers: $12-$14, Salads: $6-$13, Soups: $4 cup-$7 bowl, Entrées: $16-$32 (market price varies), Desserts: $1.50-$14.