“Very unwelcoming bunch of folks behind the counter.”—Zagat.com posting, March 26, 2009

“Sorry to disturb you…or at least that is what you will be saying if you go here.” — WashingtonPost.com posting, Nov. 4, 2009

“Overall, maybe if the staff had a little more “good to see you, glad you’re here” it would make it feel a bit homey, like it was a real find along the side of the road.”—Yelp.com posting, Dec. 3, 2009

It may be odd to start a restaurant review with what other diners think about the service, but then again, The General Store and Post Office Tavern is a quirky place.

The restaurant, owned by chef Gillian Clark and her partner, Robin Smith, opened in January 2009 in Silver Spring after much anticipation and delay. Clark, who left the corporate world to follow her passion, graduated from L’Academie de Cuisine in 1995 and worked at five local eateries before striking out on her own with Colorado Kitchen in Washington, D.C. The restaurant, which had a loyal clientele, closed in 2008 after the lease expired. She has been a commentator on NPR, is writing her second and third cookbooks and has appeared on the Food Network. No doubt about it, the woman can cook.

But as for running a restaurant, I would have to agree with those online reviewers after my four visits there: Where’s the love? The place sets you up for it: There’s an open kitchen where you can see Clark and Smith prepare your meal; the Americana décor is cheery and charming; and much of the cooking (think chicken pot pie, mac-and-cheese) is comfort food at its finest. It all goes with friendly folk.

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Puzzled by the cool reception, I asked both Clark and Smith in later phone conversations about the complaints. They were well aware of them.

“People have told me that I need to smile,” Clark said. “But I’m working. If you see a cop directing traffic, ask him to smile. When Eli Manning is throwing Hail Marys, he’s probably not smiling. When I’m home making spaghetti sauce, I can smile. When 35 people are waiting for me, I’m concentrating.”

As for the icy glares noted by at least one online commentator (I got a couple, too), Smith had this explanation: Diners place their orders at a counter right in front of the kitchen, and to expedite the cooking, Smith and Clark look to see what the staffer is entering into the computer. “When we look forward, people think we’re staring at them,” Smith said. “That’s why people perceive we’re nasty.”

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I never found the pair nasty; they just don’t set a hospitable tone. I say scrap the open kitchen and hire some peppier counter help. To be fair, not all the cyberspace criticism has been about the personality of the place. Some also have complained about the restaurant running out of menu items, particularly Clark’s famed fried chicken.

Many have also raved about the fish tacos. But while the combination of crunchy fried fish, chunky guacamole with a hint of lime, slices of bitter radish and soft corn tortillas works well together, I preferred the shrimp on a baguette. Clark knows how to integrate textures and tastes, and the crispy shrimp, slightly spicy remoulade, fresh lettuce leaves and crusty roll made for a great Northern po’ boy.

In the OK-but-I-wouldn’t-get-it-again category are the sparsely filled Black Forest ham and gruyere turnover—which I ordered when the garlic Portobello melt was unavailable—and the cheese steak, which was scantily clad with cheese. In the truly dreadful category was the patty melt, ordered in place of the unavailable shepherd’s pie. Its burger was burnt to blackness in some spots, and the interior was dry and crumbly.

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Actually, most of my favorite dishes are at the beginning and end of the menu. You can’t go wrong with the soup of the day—at least I didn’t with the two I tried: a terrific split pea as thick as London fog, and a shrimp bisque made with a rich, intense shrimp stock.

And oh, my, the pies! Made by baker Beth Christianson, they’re all amazing, but my top picks are the creamy coconut custard and the silken and on-target tart lemon chess.

The General Store is off the beaten path in the Forest Glen neighborhood, and the outdoor signage is minimal. If you don’t know about it, you won’t know about it. Built in 1882, it was a general store, and later a post office. Old food tins, labels and other knickknacks echo the era, and the focal point of the front dining room is a large stuffed bear sitting atop a player piano. A small tavern downstairs serves pub snacks and pizza. Both the restaurant and tavern have limited seating; in all, the place is definitely quaint.

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First-timers may find the protocol confusing. After you order at the counter, pay and sit down, somebody (usually Smith) calls out your ticket number and brings the food to your table

Bins with plastic drawers are set out in the two dining rooms, and some diners bus their own plates, although there’s a busboy. During my visits, I saw one party leave a tip on the table; others didn’t. And at dinner one night, my 56-year-old, gray-haired husband was carded when he ordered a beer.

In her 2007 memoir, Out of the Frying Pan, Clark writes eloquently about her love of cooking and pleasing others with her food. The two are making little money with their enterprise; they’re running The General Store because they want to, Smith said. 

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It’d be good if they’d let their customers know that. A few smiles would go a long way.

Highlights of The General Store and Post Office Tavern

6 Post Office Road (on the corner of Seminary Road), Silver Spring
301-562-8787
www.myspace.com/thebluebuilding

Open

Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday: 1:30 to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Sunday dinner: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tavern is open Thursday through Sunday, 5:30 p.m. until late.

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Prices

Brunch: all-waffle menu, $7 to $13
Lunch and dinner: sandwiches, $7 to $13; entrees, $8 to $13.50 ($19.50 for your choice of three fried chicken pieces and a side); Sunday supper: $16.95

Reservations

None

Wine List

Selection of about six alternating beers in the dining room; more than a dozen in the tavern. About six to eight different wines by the glass.

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Favorite Dishes

Soup of the day (such as split pea, shrimp bisque), crispy shrimp on a baguette with remoulade, fried chicken, collard greens, beer-battered onions

Favorite Desserts

Any pie

Good Place to Go For

Carryout—that way you can avoid the quirky dining-in experience. Just eat the fried food immediately, when it’s at its crispy best.

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Parking

Lot across the street; also parking in the rear of the restaurant.

Carole Sugarman is Bethesda Magazine’s food editor.