After Brad Marr opened Benson's Lot 2 Restaurant and Wine Bar in early 2012 with his wife, Johanna, he noticed a void in the neighborhood.
There were few places where people could eat a speedy, enjoyable meal before a concert, after a handcrafted cocktail or as a lunch break from antique hunting.
“We wanted to bring a short-order concept — like pizza by the slice — with high-quality ingredients to Benson to get people in and out and on with their day,” said Marr, who has lived in Benson for more than 10 years.
On three recent trips to Baxter's Pizza, which the Marrs run with partner Scott Stephens, I found that they are capably filling Benson's quick-casual void.
The owners worked with Lot 2's chef, Joel Mahr, to develop a menu and opened in December.
Baxter's is named after Stephens' grandfather, Johnny Baxter, who opened a car dealership in Benson in 1956 at the spot where Jake's Cigars and Spirits is today. Baxter's is in half of the former Mia's Bongo Room restaurant. The new owners didn't do much to renovate the kitchen space, aside from adding a pizza oven.
The restaurant has a small dining area that exudes urban charm, with just four tables lining exposed-brick walls. There's a handful of chairs along a counter below hanging lights and more by the entrance that look out on Maple Street and the area where Johnny Baxter first sold cars.
Diners order at the counter, with self-serve drinks and silverware. Servers deliver food on trays and check back to make sure you're happy.
On my first visit, I went alone over the lunch hour to grab a quick meal.
I ordered one of Baxter's four combo meals: A slice of house pizza, a side of potato tots and a drink for a reasonable $7.
The focus on high quality ingredients was evident. The pizza was topped with house-made sausage, pepperoni, garlic confit, mushrooms and oregano, clearly above and beyond pizza by the slice found in a shopping mall or an airport.
Chef Mahr developed the sausage and makes it in a three-step process, owner Marr said in an interview later. It tasted of fennel and paired nicely with the garlic and oregano to give the slice the right balance of flavors.
The mozzarella, provolone and romano cheeses were perfectly melted and the sauce, also made in-house, combined a fresh tomato taste with a hint of sweetness. If anything, I thought the pizza could have used more of it because it tasted so fresh.
The crust was thin with a crispy underside and edges. The slices appear to have more in common with New York-style pizza than any other variety, but I tried and failed to fold the crust.
Marr said he didn't want Baxter's to be known for any “style” of pizza, instead wanting to create a crust that tasted great. The pizza is cooked in a gas-fired oven at 550 degrees, and that heat coupled with the pizza's high-gluten flour is what helps achieve the underside crunch.
The side of potato tots was a pleasant surprise. They were fried to a perfect golden-brown crisp but were hot and soft inside, a departure from mushy, frozen, grocery store-variety frozen potatoes. I was surprised when Marr told me they too were frozen. The difference, he said, is how long and hot they are fried.
On my second visit, I went in the evening with a friend. We had hoped to try a pint of the brown ale that Lot 2 brewer John Fahrer makes especially for Baxter's, but were disappointed when we learned they were out. Marr said the quantities have been limited and they are struggling to keep up with demand.
I settled for a glass of cabernet and a $3.25 slice of mushroom pizza, made with crimini, shiitake and portobello mushrooms, caramelized onions and goat cheese. The fresh mushrooms paired nicely with the sweet onions and zippy cheese.
A side of sweet potato tots offered a sweet respite from the savory pizza. They were again prepared perfectly and became my new favorite.
My companion had the $8 Reuben sandwich, which we agreed was the least successful dish we tried. The marble rye bread was crisp and tasty and the pickled sauerkraut was pleasantly acidic. But the house-made Russian dressing lacked the traditional kick and the dry corned beef lacked the salty, savory flavor that the sandwich needed to make up for the bland dressing. The sandwich tasted mostly of the kraut.
Marr said they wanted to create their own take on the Reuben. He said he understood why someone craving a traditional Reuben may not prefer Baxter's but said they get a lot of compliments on it.
A side of pizza potato tots — regular tots topped with cheese and marinara sauce — was enjoyable enough. It tasted similar to a mozzarella stick. I'd probably rank them below the other tots I tried because the sauce and cheese made them slightly less crispy.
My third and final visit, again for lunch, was a showcase for a brisk, quality meal.
I went with the $7 meatball sandwich that featured house-made meatballs and marinara sauce and the house cheese blend. The toasted bread, made locally at Le Quartier Bakery, was crisp and light and was a perfect vessel for the moist, spicy meatballs to shine against the fresh sauce and creamy cheese.
My companion went with two one-topping slices, paired with a soda in a combo meal for $6.
The first, featuring pepperonis roughly four times the size we were expecting, bubbled and oozed from the cheesiness and the richness of the meat.
The second was a standout. It was made with jalapeńo bacon that I speculated was house-made but Marr informed me was made for them. The flavorful spiciness of the jalapeńo came close to overwhelming the other ingredients, but the sauce and the cheese tamed it. The crisp bacon gave the slice a great texture.
As Marr envisioned, Baxter's caters to the person on the go. Wait times for food on all three visits fell between 8 and 12 minutes, which Marr indicated is in line with their expectations. The exception to this, he said, would be those ordering whole pizzas, ranging in price between $13.50 and $21, which take about 20 minutes to prepare.
Marr said he had no plans to open another restaurant so quickly after he opened Lot 2, but when a space with a full kitchen that needed few renovations opened, he seized the opportunity to bring a short-order restaurant to Benson similar to places he'd seen in cities like Chicago and Portland.
By continuing the focus on prompt food, quality ingredients and thoughtful preparation, Baxter's will evolve into what Benson as a neighborhood has become: eclectic, full of flavor, and ultimately can't-miss.
Jeff Peterson of Schuyler is a husband of one, father of two and enjoys a fast food cheeseburger as much as foie gras. Follow him on Twitter @43County.
Correction: Scott Stephens' name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.