LeadBelly Contemporary American Pub is located at 8th and Q in Lincoln's Haymarket. You'll recognize the location. It has been the home to no fewer than a half dozen failed restaurants over the years. It's a location with baggage, yes, but also one with incredible potential. Potential that's increasing substantially with the impending opening of nearby hotels and, of course, the Pinnacle Bank Arena. LeadBelly's approach is both more traditional than many of the earlier attempts in this building, and curiously eclectic. Perhaps the best thing they've done is add outdoor dining with a new patio on both the east and south sides of the building. The experience is, unfortunately, quite noisy right now thanks to nearby construction, but the beepbeepbeep of backing construction vehicles won't be there for too much longer. The interior is classy, with black booths and a variety of conversation-encouraging tables. The front room features a bar and televisions, while back rooms instead offer tables and booths. It's cozy without feeling too crowded. Don't come for a quiet meal, though. Conversation volumes do get a bit high. I have visited LeadBelly twice, once on a Saturday night and once for a Monday lunch. The restaurant was busy both times. On the Saturday evening we arrived around 6:30pm. Oddly, a sign encouraging patrons to seat themselves greeted us at the door. I don't know if that's a regular thing or if it was due to something like a temporary shortage of personnel. Later in the evening a host was managing seating; perhaps it's seat yourself until the tables are filled? Once we sat at a booth toward the back, we were quickly greeted by our server and offered drinks. On our lunch visit we snagged a table outside. It took a good five or ten minutes for somebody to come along and clear off the glasses and such left over from the previous patrons. The wait wasn't very encouraging, but neither was it surprising; a relatively new restaurant is going to face that kind of hiccup on a busy lunch service. Overall service ranged from fine to very good on my two visits. In both cases the servers were friendly, upbeat, and energetic. They offered recommendations and they were able to speak knowledgeably about most of the items on the menu. Drinks were refilled as expected and the usual "how's everything going?" questions came at appropriate intervals. Other tables appeared to be receiving a similar level of service. My largest gripe is that our Monday lunch took much too long to come out of the kitchen and, thanks to the slow table clearing at the start, the whole experience dragged a bit. I don't want to be rushed, of course, but weekday lunch service generally needs to be snappy to get folks back to work. LeadBelly's menu (Page 1, Page 2, Page 3) is, as I said, both traditional and unique. They offer nachos and salads and burgers and tacos and sandwiches. Pretty typical stuff. Take a closer look at the descriptions in the menu. Intriguing, right? I can't cover the entire menu but I can spotlight a few dishes. The Missus tried the grilled cheese ($7.99) and the tomato soup ($3.49 / $4.49). She described the tomato soup as good, but not necessarily anything to write home about. The sandwich, on the other hand, was a delicious combination of parmesan, provolone, tomato, basil, and garlic aioli on a toasted baguette -- a definite step up from the Velveeta on wheat I make at home. I went a far less traditional route. While browsing the menu I couldn't help but get drawn in by the Full Leaded Jacket ($11.99). I had to try it. It's a burger on a cinnamon roll bun topped with cheddar, chili, queso, sour cream, and jalapenos, and served with corn chips. As with all of LeadBelly's burgers, you can choose from ground chuck, chicken breast, or a veggie burger. I opted for the veggie burger and it was fantastic. The overall Full Leaded Jacket experience lived up to my expectations. It's a bizarre meal, one consisting of an appetizer, entree, and dessert all on one plate. But somehow it works. It's not the sort of meal I plan to eat every time I visit, but I would definitely have it again. On my next visit I forced myself to try something very different from the burger. This time I went with the chicken tinga "flatcar" ($10.99). A flatcar is like a taco or tostada served on a crisp corn tortilla. Mine featured chicken, lettuce, and blue cheese. It was served with mild salsa and a side of black beans. It was a slightly messy, but tasty, meal, nicely sized for lunch, but perhaps a bit on the small side for a full dinner. The tortillas were a nice variation from the usual sort of tortilla used for tacos. The beans, though not particularly remarkable on their own, complemented the meal quite well. I wasn't alone for lunch that day. I was joined by three fine fellas, @9130khz, @LiquidRetro, and @IMFletcher2. And somehow I came out alive. Fletch opted for the huevos ranchero burger ($8.99). He was intrigued by the idea of a fried egg on a hamburger. In addition to the egg, the burger features salsa, romaine, and sour cream. It came with a combination of crinkle-cut and waffle fries on the side. He enjoyed the hamburger and I'm pretty sure he plans to put an egg on every burger he eats from now on. LiquidRetro sent me this information about a recent trip to LeadBelly:
On Friday June 14th I ate dinner at LeadBelly with my family for the second time that week. Parking in the Haymarket was difficult as the parking garage was already full at 6pm. If going later than 6pm to LeadBelly be prepared to wait. Despite being very busy our service was good. He was very enthusiastic and kept the water glasses full! I took a gamble and ordered the Fish and Chips ($10.99) after reading several online reviews recommending them and it being a LeadBelly favorite on the menu. The gamble paid off, with what was some of the best Fish and Chips I have had in town. They were served piping hot, the breading was thick, and super crispy. The menu said it was battered in New Castle beer but I couldn’t really detect the beer flavors. The tarter sauce was a homemade mayo based that had what tasted like a bit of garlic and onion added in. It was great for the fish as well as the fries. The fries were a mix of waffle and crinkle cut that had a special seasoning on them. They were good and the ratio of waffle to crinkle was fine for me. My only suggestion would be to include another piece of Fish and or a different vegetable side. The grilled sweet corn side that was included was overcooked and a bit mushy. Overall if you like Fish and Chips, it’s a must try at LeadBelly.All that being said, does LeadBelly have what it takes to break the string of restaurant failures in that location? I think it does, and I think I'm basing that on more than just short-term buzz. The improved outdoor seating, unique menu, and Haymarket expansion all work in LeadBelly's favor. Their largest challenge at this point appears to be strengthening their service by ensuring customers are greeted well and that food comes out of the kitchen quickly, especially at lunch. If they can do that, LeadBelly may be the first to say that they've finally found a winning recipe at 8th and Q.