As recently as a week and a half ago, the menu at Ryles Jazz Club warned that it was "under construction." The traditional barbecue functioned without the traditional Southern accompaniments, which meant that baby-back ribs had to suffice as their own meal. (When two racks of them are piled onto one plate with a mess of coleslaw, they do just that.) In fact, the collection of meats and hot sauces on the night we went had more spunk than the vocal groups harmonizing on the stage. As one might glean from its full name, Ryles can be a happening place. The jazz brunch is depressingly popular. Anybody mourning the slow passing of an American art form should try getting a table here on a Sunday morning. The barbecue, then, is clearly a gambit to draw the brunching crowds back for dinner.
The Tuesday night we showed up was a somewhat different story. Jazz of every variety except, perhaps, that of the Manhattan Transfer, was given the night off so the "best of Boston a cappella" could charge a $7 cover and rock the house. The vocals-only version of last summer's May-December novelty "Stacy's Mom" didn't exactly go with pulled chicken. It was meek where the chicken (tender and tangy) was not. Food this finger-lickin' good doesn't need the aural equivalent of a bib and a Wet Nap. Still, the groups, including the lively ensemble Downtown Crossing, worked hard, while the chef and his crew seemed to be taking it easy.
The new menu, which is now fully constructed, should make things interesting. For one thing, it's twice the size. For another, it lists vegetables: collard greens, and, well, just collard greens, but there is a large Caesar salad. (Something's wrong if you prefer the Caesar over those sharp greens.) The voodoo chicken (hot, hot, hot) might make you want to stick a pin in yourself. And there are all kinds of seafood, a lot of it fried: channel catfish, crab cakes, and the "Maryland shore dinner" (shrimp, hush puppies, fries, and more catfish). The Atlantic salmon, however, is merely pan seared.
Owner Gary Mitchell said barbecue was an obvious choice for a venue like Ryles. "We just thought it married well with jazz and New Orleans and blues," he said. "It's music and late night and jazz, so it's a big appetizer menu. We didn't want all this pretense. You're there to hear a band and have a good time."
The pies -- Key lime and sweet potato, among others -- are made on the premises, Mitchell said.
Ryles's reputation has more to do with its bohemian atmosphere than its food, which is, at least, an improvement over the tired pub fare that previously came out of this kitchen. And for Boston, this is pretty good barbecue. But somehow we doubt that anyone is ever going to come here for the food. They certainly aren't flocking here for a cappella covers.