Fired-up about Firebirds

by Charles Jenkin

Firebirds has two locations: one in StoneCrest and one at the Morrison Plaza. Photo courtesy of Firebirds

We all desire to go to a restaurant that is busy, right? We feel a great sense of validation and confirmation when we go out to dine and the chosen destination is filled on a Friday or Saturday evening. We appreciate it so much, a 30 or 45 minute wait doesn’t turn us away.

Why? Because we know we will get very good service, excellent food and drink, and all at a reasonable price. In fact, this dining spot gets so busy every evening they offer you the ability to call ahead and be added to the list; call about reservations for parties of eight and up. And that’s a great sign of a very successful eatery.

In this case, I’m talking about the two Firebirds Wood Fired Grill restaurants in south Charlotte – one on Rea Road in the StoneCrest shopping center and the other in SouthPark at the Morrison Plaza.

The first Firebirds, the one at Stonecrest, opened in December 2000. Owner Dennis Thompson was inspired by his travels out West and was so enamored by the look, feel and food, he conceived Firebirds for south Charlotte. An indoor stone fireplace, exposed woods, bold colors and stacked stone columns create that comfortable out-West ambiance. A large, long bar, big booths and appropriately spaced tables on two levels conceal just how busy this place gets.

For one visit, I chose a Wednesday evening to reduce the potential wait. By calling Firebirds around 6:45 p.m. we were placed on the list and told the wait was about 45 minutes. We arrived just before 7:30 p.m. to a couple dozen folks waiting outside. We checked in to a full dining room, and went to the bar, which was packed. Why? It was Wednesday ‘all day drink specials,’ like $5 martinis. No wonder. (Mondays is half price on wine by the glass and select bottles). We had just received our cocktails when we were informed our table was ready; excellent timing.

Photo courtesy of Firebirds

I am always appreciative when a server comes to the table the first time and introduces themselves, then welcomes you to, in this case, Firebirds. He made mention of the drinks we obviously just received at the bar and placed the cocktail menu standing at the edge of the table for our future perusal. The full menu is an outstanding collection of starters, salads, burgers and sandwiches, steaks and specialty dinners.

Unique or signature items that are very well executed can easily create that “wow” affect. Take, for example, the Lobster Spinach Queso – a spicy blend of lobster, baby spinach, tomatoes and pepper jack cheese, presented with tri-colored tortilla chips. Great flavor with a smooth creamy texture; accented by yummy pieces of my favorite seafood. Smoked Chicken Wings also fit the bill; smoking is unique, and fantastic at infusing great tastes. Coconut Shrimp, Seared Ahi Tuna, and Firebirds Chicken Tortilla Soup are other worthy considerations.

If you’re into salads, you will not be disappointed at Firebirds. There are several selections, like the Firebirds BLT – chopped lettuce, tomatoes, applewood-smoked bacon (yum), roasted garlic and ranch dressing. Grilled Shrimp & Strawberry Salad offers mixed greens, fire-grilled shrimp, goat cheese, jicama, spiced pecans, strawberries and balsamic vinaigrette. Even the Spinach Salad is very good, with very fresh spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes, along with eggs, applewood-smoked bacon and balsamic vinaigrette. If you want to share a salad, they are very happy to split the salad in the kitchen.

Let’s talk entrée’s; plenty of choices for everyone to find two or more that would excite their palate. Yet not an overabundance of dishes, allowing the open kitchen to maintain the flow with a full restaurant for many hours at a time which is key to their success. The first entrée I received was excellent, both in appearance and taste. Parmesan Encrusted Flounder with a tomato basil beurre blanc, Parmesan mashed potatoes and spiced pecan green beans. The fish itself was a very healthy portion, more than enough for any appetite; and it was perfectly cooked. Tender and sweet on the inside, with crunchy flavor-packed crust on the outside. The mashed potatoes were delicious and the fresh beans cooked just right in a delicious flavor combination.

Photo courtesy of Firebirds

Firebirds Specialties include the flounder, along with salmon, trout, meatloaf, shrimp, chicken breast and baby back ribs. If you like it spicy, order Firebirds Chicken Pasta; it combines a chile asiago cream sauce, applewood-smoked bacon, green onions and tomatoes. I asked the server about the dish; he said it was very good, very spicy and most folks don’t finish it as it is a big dish. The server was correct on all counts. I heated it for lunch the next day and it was still scrumptious.

There is something about a steak or a burger cooked over an open wood-fired grill. It’s flavor! The smoke and the flames infuse a dramatic taste profile we just love. You would enjoy any of the cuts; sirloin, ribeye or filet, along with a bacon-wrapped filet with shrimp or lobster tail. All steaks arrive with your choice of a loaded baked potato (is there any other way?) or seasoned steak fries. A delectable offering is the Chile Rubbed Delmonico – it’s seasoned with chile pepper and served with Southwest au gratin potatoes. The steak is cooked to order, arriving hot, tender and juicy. Why? As the menu states “Every Firebirds steak is hand-cut fresh daily.” It makes a difference. All of the burgers also are very good choices; again, that wood-fired flavor permeates the meat so deliciously.

There is an obvious culture at Firebirds to warmly and professionally satisfy each guest. From the hosts and bartenders to the servers and managers; yes, I include managers at Firebirds. As opposed to some restaurants where a manager is never visible; I experienced a superlative management experience on one evening visit to the Stonecrest location. After having taken a few bites of our dinner, a manager came over and asked how everything was? Then he asked a question I have never been asked in any dining establishment; he asked us how our server was doing?

He explained this was the server’s first dinner shift and wanted to know if he was meeting expectations, doing a good job. We told him yes, everything was excellent, and it was. I didn’t have the heart to say he placed the cocktail menu upside down at the table (servers – always look at it first). A minor mistake; it was funny.

Firebirds success is a combination of a high level of attention to detail and being brilliant at the basics. When a restaurant is that busy, it can be easy to make mistakes; they don’t make many. In fact, I can share only two examples of opportunities for improvement I experienced on my recent visits. When asking guests if they would like to start with an appetizer, and the guest says “Give us a couple of minutes to choose one,” that is the time to say “We are out of the Seared Ahi Tuna” versus waiting until it’s ordered; on the plus side, other options were recommended. A burger and fries was ordered and arrived; it took a very long time for ketchup and mayo to arrive. Simply always ask when taking the order, would you like any condiments, so they arrive with the food. When a server places food on the table, always make sure there is nothing lacking before leaving. Again, these were the only two instances; I must emphasize that overall the service on each dining experience was excellent, as was the food.

If you can be this good at one dining location, couldn’t you do it with two or more? Not always; there are numerous examples of restaurants that tried to expand and failed. Firebirds Wood Fired Grill definitely has their act together. They are up to 21 locations, from Delaware to Arizona, including the two in south Charlotte. We are most fortunate!

Questions, comments, south Charlotte restaurant openings, closings and food news, email ­culinary@thecharlotteweekly.com.

3.5 of four stars
7716 Rea Road
Phone: 704-752-7979
Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Details: Call-ahead wait list seating
Visit: www.firebirdsrestaurants.com

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