Roundabout Diner and Lounge takes its name from its prime Portsmouth Rotary location on Route 1, just off I-95. Previously based in Eliot ME as the Muddy River Marketplace, the relocated operation has taken over a former pancake house. Roundabout has wisely retained breakfast items and family fare into its something-for-everyone menu that now merges Muddy River's original barbecue items. The slick retro space has bright blue walls with stainless steel accents throughout three areas: a midsized dining room with booths and tables, diner style stools at a counter overlooking TVs and a separate lounge area with more TVs.
My girlfriend and I stopped in around noon on the Fourth of July. Business was brisk and heavily tilted toward bacon and egg variations, which all looked good as I surveyed the plates on my way to our table.
Barbecue items include St Louis cut pork ribs, pulled pork and grilled chicken, with those last two items available on platters, on a 3-meat combo, as a sandwich, as a topping for salad or in a quesadilla. Beyond the 'cue, if it's American, chances are it's on the menu at Roundabout Diner: a few different soups, a few different salads, turkey meatloaf, chicken pot pie, lobster rolls, lobster mac and cheese, BLTs, a wide burger selection (with the option to upgrade to Kobe), haddock, salmon and several versions of fries with different constructions and toppings. A full breakfast menu includes an omelette made with smoked pulled pork.
Onion rings were lightly battered and cooked to a crisp, with some burnt brown spots that may turn off others, but I found them to be a plus. They're sort of a poor man's version of the kind that Boston types would recognize at Kelly's Roast Beef or the now-departed Uncle Pete's. The dipping sauce didn't hit me with either the garlic or horsradish that were listed on the menu, but I did enjoy the refreshing dillweed flavor that went surprisingly well with fried food.
When the BBQ sampler ($24.00) arrived, my eyes were nearly blinded by the sheen of the liberally-applied barbecue sauce, but not so much to keep me from noticing that the pulled pork was missing from the trio.
I mentioned the pork omission to the server and she brought the pork later, stuffed into a soup mug. It made for an interesting irony, since the pork was so soupy from the overabundance of sauce. (I know I sometimes sound like I'm anti-sauce, but I'm not. I like sauce if it's used to enhance and elevate the flavors of the meat, but cry foul when it's used as the sole source of flavor or in excess to rescue dry meat.) This sauce was sweet but fairly neutral aside from its sheer quantity. Trying to factor this out as I tasted the meat, I was actually impressed by the texture of the meat submerged below, which had not a trace of sogginess (one end of the tenderness spectrum) or stiffness (the other end). Bark content was high and flavor seemed to emanate from the meat itself. So as constituted, the pork was a disappointment, but there's potential if ordered unsauced.
Ribs were just as sauced and less successful. Packing average meatiness, they had a faint crust and not much flavor beyond the sauce. The ribs were cooked properly to a good texture, leaning toward the firm side. Juiciness was minimal but it was there. Were they smoked? Possibly.
Chicken was grilled, not smoked. A small breast quarter had rubbery skin and dry, bland white meat.
A single sauce is served on the barbecue, with no choices, extra cups or bottles on the table. It has an average thickness (not runny or gloppy despite overuse) and is sweet but not overly so.
Cole slaw was crisp and fresh but very dry, with almost no condiment to moisten the cabbage. In another menu disconnect, the fennel was missing too. (In the sides section, fennel cole slaw is listed; I asked our server if that's what came with the combo and she said yes, that's the only slaw on offer. So I was expecting either a flurry of fennel seed atop the cabbage or raw fennel as the base, but neither appeared. So either the server lied, the menu is outdated or my taste buds are shot.)
Beans were ordinary and probably from a can. Cornbread seemed pretty good, but it caught so much of the rib sauce that I discarded most of it.
Mac and cheese supplied a very creamy, slightly runny, very mild but ultimately enjoyable cheesebath for a bowl of pasta shells.
The bottom line:
It's tough to judge a restaurant by its performance on the Fourth of July, so I'll do a little extrapolation. There were some minor duds and some hints of bright spots to come, but I see Roundabout Diner as less of a 'cue destination and more of a friendly, convenient beach trip stop that has enough menu diversity to please anyone without really wowing anyone. Who knows, if you can get past the sauce, they may just have a doable pulled pork sandwich.
Yelp reviews of Roundabout Diner
Urban Spoon reviews of Roundabout Diner