What to expect: Buttons, the month-old restaurant and supper club owned by chef Keith Hicks, takes '70s cool and scooches it forward just a touch into a smooth middle ground where the jams are slow and the menu smacks of family-style Sunday supper. Self-described as a throwback party, Buttons draws a devoted crowd with live music seven nights a week and a layout designed to showcase talent, both on the stage and in the kitchen.
The setup: Buttons has a dress code and guests embrace it, so much so that I felt uncomfortably under-dressed in my normal Saturday wear of denim and a collared shirt. Instead of just getting the job done or squeaking in under the dress code wire (as is the case in so many night spots), Buttons’ 30- and 40-something clientele amplified their style with curve-enhancing dresses, the highest heels, salon-fresh hair, and jewelry on top of jewelry. Not to be outdone, the gentlemen cut slim figures in trousers, suit jackets, and silky fabrics. By comparison, my companion’s Oxford cloth and khakis looked ham-fisted.
The room is laid out theatrically with scoopy private banquettes on two levels and a smattering of tables in the center that can be hoisted up and out of the way in response to dance floor density. Overhead, deeply hued glass pendant chandeliers hover in the atmosphere without interfering with the acoustics, which were clearly prioritized during the design process. My companion, a professional musician, offered the clinician’s assessment. “The room is good,” he said. “The high ceilings, the table orientation, the breadth of the space, it’s all designed to create intimacy while also distributing the sound in a way that won’t make the guests feel assaulted.” When the music is canned (versus live, which starts at 7-8 pm nightly) it's a mix of Luther and Lionel, with a little Barry White thrown in for balance.
On the menu: Chef Keith Hicks grounds the menu with his winning formula of soul meets sustenance, a philosophy embodied in his trademark chicken & waffles. Served with bighearted generosity, the dish consists of collard greens hidden under a mound of not-really-edible deep-fried sweet potato shavings, surrounded by three pieces of fried chicken on one side and a full waffle topped with fresh strawberries and blueberries on the other. The tin cup of real maple syrup could be dipped into or poured over, given your leaning. The shrimp fish grits, our other entree, arrived thusly: a pyramid of deep fried shrimp and not-greasy catfish stranded on an island of grits amid a sea of red eye gravy and topped with a fried egg. The dish looked like a sunset in a soul food-lover’s fever dream.
The highlight of the night arrived in a plain white ramekin. In his namesake gumbo, Hicks tells a potential snoozer of a story with the traditional andouille sausage, but then rethinks the plot by throwing in crawfish, shrimp, gator, and catfish. What emerges from the smoke is an exquisite dish, born from a perfectly burned roux that evolves on the tongue in every direction at once.
While I would have preferred a less bitter, more vinegary heat in my collards and more of a kick to the back end of the fairly plain chicken dredge (both matters of personal taste), it is essential that Buttons work out its timing. Our entrees arrived without explanation or apology as we were only partially through our appetizers, making for an awkward shuffle of dishes on the table and an unnecessarily rushed pace.
Drinks: Buttons prides itself on its signature drinks. To get in the spirit of the bar, my companion and I ordered drinks enough out-of-character for ourselves as to be laughable. Mine: a coconut margarita; my companion’s: a pineapple upside-down martini. Both felt festive and fun — dare I also say, pretty — and sweet without being cloying.
Who was there: The dress code and musical style attracts an upscale blues and R&B crowd, grown up and decked out in expectation of an elegant good time. Across the room, a birthday party toasted martinis. Near at hand, a small band of 20-somethings took self-portraits and teetered under the influence of cocktails and high heels.
Where to sit: If you’re in the mood for a canoodle, definitely call ahead to score a banquette. The likelihood that you’ll stumble in off the street and into one is unlikely; advance planning is your friend. If the music is why you’re here, you’re in luck. There really are no bad seats; the room is designed to orient every guest toward the stage.
Price: Entrees register in the teens. Specialty drinks will run you a reasonable $9. For two adults, with one drink each (unlikely), expect to spend about $75 after tip.
Nice detail: Buttons has both ample self-parking and a covered valet.
The takeaway: For a proper date or a reminder that dressing to impress doesn’t have to revolve around Louis and Louboutin, Buttons stands at the ready every night of the week.