"Light on the butter?! Honey, you're in a Southern restaurant," the waiter at Clementine Bistro sassed a couple of regulars. A few minutes earlier he'd been cheerfully scolding another table for their helpful interference: "No stacking!" he chirped, adding that he had won the plate-stacking Olympics as a trainee busboy years ago. Then he briefly transformed into an opera star to deliver another table's check with an aria. Maybe the reindeer-antler headband and red leotard he was wearing had put him in an extra-hammy mood, but given the unruffled, contented amusement of everyone in the room, it seemed more likely this was Clementine's standard approach to breakfast.

In some restaurants, the song-and-dance routine might be uncomfortable, the leotard displays over-sharey. But not here. At Clementine, the borderline-insanely friendly service (a bartender on the dinner shift was equally chatty, though standardly attired) is purely charming. That's because Clementine is not what it seems. Despite appearances, this is not a designy Southern restaurant with a sleek cocktail bar. Beneath the mod surface, it's a humble neighborhood joint, more about socializing than dining. In other words, expect on your second or third visit to be sassed like a regular, and like it.

The food reflects this. What the kitchen excels at are tidbits to be shared over a cocktail. (The cocktails are also fantastic.) If you've heard of the place, you've probably heard about the hush puppies ($5). The menu calls them "World's Greatest," and it's hard to argue. They're practically doughnuts: blob-shaped, deep-fried, soft and not at all greasy. They come in three types, standard, jalapeño and bacon. They must be total fatbombs, but somehow they feel and taste light.

Also on the share-worthy appetizer menu are a variety of sliders: tilapia, chicken, beef or portobello ($2 each). They arrive looking disappointingly plain (especially if you opt for grilled over fried on the chicken and fish, as you should), but they're packed with flavor, thanks to well-chosen secret sauces.

By contrast, the regular burger ($6) is unremarkable, even dressed up with blue cheese and bacon ($7.75). And the larger main dishes are mostly lackluster, though tilapia makes a number of interesting appearances, including in a full dinner ($10) or with grits at breakfast ($7). Breakfast is served all day, and it's where you learn the wisdom of the waiter's comment about butter. Everything cooked in butter is great: Hash browns are perfect, and the flat-grilled English muffin you should order instead of toast is like some kind of exquisite dessert, especially with apple jelly. But a veggie scramble didn't hold together at all—the veggies were too crunchy, the egg overcooked, and the whole thing just seemed to be missing something.

Luckily, it's easy to make a full and delicious meal from Clementine's appetizer list, especially during happy hour (2 to 6 pm Tuesday through Sunday). This lets you enjoy the restaurant's strengths: conviviality and good cheer, excellent cocktails and small bits of buttery heaven to eat.

  • Order this: The world’s greatest hush puppies ($5).
  • Best deal: Three sliders at happy hour ($3.99).
  • I’ll pass: Veggie scramble ($6)—it’s not bad, just boring.

Clementine Bistro, 510 NE 28th Ave., 236-8541, clementinebistro.com. 11 am-midnight Tuesday-Friday, 8 am-midnight Saturday, 8 am-10 pm Sunday. $ Inexpensive.