Josie's — the spacious and pretty neighborhood mega- bistro with an atmosphere that is part delicatessen (open booths) and part diner (counter and classic open kitchen) — illustrates that the third time really is the charm.
Enormous deli cases of take-out have been replaced by plenty of seating, now permitting many more customers and a fuller appreciation of the high ceilings and the whimsical décor.
After two previous attempts at casual American dining, this incarnation of Josie's, with its friendly service and almost impeccably prepared simple fare, will surely prevail.
My first Josie's experience was on early Wednesday afternoon in late April, memorable because of the zesty chicken sandwich ($7.95). The plate came with delicious thinly cut fries and a small cup of slightly smoky coleslaw with bacon. But it was the unbelievably buttery chicken breast, the judicious amount of pepper jack cheese and banana pepper rings for richness and heat, the crisp lettuce and ripe tomato that made this probably the best chicken sandwich I have ever tasted.
On another visit, the smokehouse burger ($8.95) was almost as good: A 6-ounce patty of Angus beef, grilled perfectly medium-well yet tender and juicy, arrived on a soft toasted bun. A generous helping of chewy bacon, a bit of melted cheddar cheese, a smear of spicy barbecue sauce and skinny homemade flash-fried onion slices made it utterly decadent.
Instead of getting more fries, I opted contritely for the fruit cup included with it: a delicious combo of grapes, strawberries, diced melon and pineapple.
Josie's offers a nice selection of entree salads, but the "little salad" ($3.25) with diced tomato and flawless hard-boiled eggs, and a small cup of chunky and very rich blue cheese dressing, makes a good companion for any sandwich.
There also is an excellent breakfast service. The wait for a table can be long, but the counter almost always has space and the added advantage of waitress Sandy Richie's energetic personality if you're lucky.
Try the pancakes (three for $5.50) that span a dinner plate. Josie's makes the batter, and the result is as light as angel food cake. This might be why you don't feel stuffed afterwards despite the dollops of whipped cream and butter. With all this effort, plus the fact that Josie's produces a lovely line of gourmet bottled foods, I find it incomprehensible that real maple syrup is not served with the pancakes.
Lest it appear that this review excludes the health-conscious, I went back one last time to try out one of the "healthier sides," in this case, the egg white omelet ($8.50). The kitchen had left out the promised mushrooms, but apart from that, there could be no complaint about this light breakfast with baby spinach leaves on top and sweet sautéed onions and diced tomatoes in the omelet itself. It was served with lightly toasted whole-wheat bread and three sage-laced turkey links.
Josie's is a scion of Lexington's famous Merrick Inn. Perhaps the longtime experience of its owners in the restaurant business accounts for the persistent efforts to get the Josie's concept just right. Certainly it also is the wisdom and oversight of Merrick's previous sous chef, Shawn Hanna, who is now overseeing this menu, that contributes to the pleasure of dining here.
Or maybe it is just that practice eventually makes perfect. Whatever.
I only hope that now that Josie's has got its stride, the option of closing is off the table.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.