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People were WAY more excited about this than I would’ve expected, but the Shoney’s on Kanawha Boulevard reopened last week after being closed since the start of COVID-19 more than a year ago.

There was much fearful chatter on the interwebs during that time that maybe the classic American restaurant (founded right here in Charleston in 1947) was done for good. So this news to the contrary was widely celebrated in social circles over the past several days.

Who knew?

I was taken aback by the masses who missed the place and even more surprised by their most-praised point of all — that even the restaurant’s popular breakfast, buffet and salad bars are back, with disposable gloves on hand to help minimize direct contact with shared serving utensils.

Although I haven’t been to a Shoney’s in decades, it will always hold a special place in my heart. In fact, childhood visits to this family restaurant chain are what actually led me to becoming a food critic decades later.

I’m not even kidding.

When I was a wee one growing up near Huntington, our family was selected to become “secret shoppers” who were required to dine out at an area Shoney’s or Captain D’s several times a month for years — and then send a “review” grading the food, service and cleanliness we experienced after each visit. A few weeks later, we’d get a check in the mail covering the entire cost of our meal.

As a young boy, this opportunity was much more epic than my small mind could comprehend.

“You mean we get to keep going out to eat over and over,” I asked my Dad, “and as long as we tell them if we liked it or not, we get to keeping doing it? For free!?”

Although we pay our own tabs for restaurants reviewed now in the Charleston Gazette-Mail (so free food won’t sway an objective critique), I still use that “secret shopper” approach as much as possible.

I’m not trying to get any special treatment or prime table or meals that I don’t order and pay for myself. My goal is to let readers honestly know what kind of experience they might expect if they walked into the same restaurant themselves.

Dining out is fun, no doubt, but it’s a commitment. It takes time. It’s not cheap. And you have so many places to choose from.

So when you’re willing to give up some of your precious time and hard-earned money to eat out, I’m happy to help you separate the good from the bad. The exceptional from the mediocre. The “it’s so worthy” from the “don’t waste your time.”

Observations just like those we shared with Shoney’s a lifetime ago.

Maybe it is time I take a walk down memory lane with an overdue return visit.

•••

Mamma Mia!

Soho’s Italian Restaurant picked a perfect day to roll out a new (and greatly expanded!) brunch menu this past Sunday, offering local moms a delicious way to celebrate their dedicated day.

Featuring a mouthwatering mix of classic and contemporary brunch creations, the menu offers more than a dozen new dishes available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday at the “Ristorante Italiano” inside (and outside) downtown Charleston’s Capitol Market.

You’ll find favorites like chicken and waffles, French toast, oatmeal with fruit and build-your-own omelets, along with a breakfast pizza topped with eggs, bacon, sausage and cheese.

There are also elevated options like:

n Smoked salmon eggs benedict on a toasted English muffin with poached egg and hollandaise;

n A country hash full of crispy tots topped with sausage gravy, Havarti cheese, scrambled eggs, thick-cut bacon lardons and crispy fried onions;

n A brunch burger featuring two 4-oz patties with white cheddar cheese, crispy hash browns, smoked bacon and an over-easy egg with roasted garlic aioli on toasted brioche;

n Breakfast poutine with crispy dipper fries smothered in sausage gravy and white cheddar cheese curds.

Or how’s this for something different? A new “croiffle” breakfast sandwich comes with Black Forest Ham, Gruyere cheese and fig jam smashed between a waffled croissant.

IF YOU GO: Soho’s Italian Restaurant, 800 Smith St. at Capitol Market in downtown Charleston, is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 304-720-7646, visit www.sohoscrw.com or check out the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy” who writes a weekly column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has appeared in several state, regional and national culinary publications. Follow him online at www.wvfoodguy.com or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest as “WV Food Guy.” He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or at wvfoodguy@aol.com.

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