If there's one thing chowhound.com
has taught me, it's that appearances are unreliable: beautiful restaurants routinely serve underwhelming meals, while modest exteriors often hide fine budget-priced fare. Set your unprepossessing building in Southie, where too many joints serve food best enjoyed after a long session at the pub, and folks have two reasons to underestimate you. The Liberty Bell looks like the love child of a cinderblock fallout shelter and a down-at-the-heels convenience store. Inside isn't much better: naked laminate tables, institutional-green accents, fluorescent lighting. And yet this 20-seat counter-service restaurant is actually excellent of its kind.
That kind is the Boston roast-beef-sandwich joint, originated by Kelly's Roast Beef in Revere. The format has hundreds of local exponents, many Greek/American-owned, with similar rosters of subs, pizza, Italian-American entrées, and fried seafood. Roast-beef sandwiches are their benchmark, and the Liberty Bell's are very good: the King ($5.55) is well-stacked with warm, tender, rare roast beef, though the Big ($4.85) is a bit anemically filled, and the Junior ($3.95) seems kid-size. Barbecue sauce and melty American cheese are recommended additions, making for a sloppy, delicious sandwich. Alas, it commits the same sin as every other roast-beef competitor: its rolls are nearly as soft as Wonder Bread. A sturdier bun would make this sandwich great.
The deep-frying technique here is excellent: fish and chips ($8.95) boast three whitefish fillets and a huge mound of middling fries or better onion rings, plus coleslaw or a green salad. The Super Chicken sandwich ($3.75) features a hand-breaded fried cutlet. White pizza ($8.50/12 inch; $12.95/16 inch) confounds expectations of another oily Greek pan pizza with its Italianate crust, garlic, EVOO, and five cheeses. Stumped by 30-plus sub options, I settled on the crowd-favorite sirloin tips ($6.95), properly cooked to order and pleasantly chewy. Beverages are limited to bottled American soft drinks ($1.65).
Ultimately, the Liberty Bell impresses with the amount of care on display, enough to elevate it above the dreary mediocrity so often seen at quick-service places. Its pizza crusts are hand-tossed. Chicken wings ($5.35/six; $8.45/10) don't come off a Sysco truck. Even the coleslaw isn't the usual oversweet, soybean-oil-and-HFCS horror: it's fresh-tasting, savory, with a discernible hint of garlic. The Liberty Bell could probably get away with more cost-saving shortcuts, but gives enough of a damn not to. Maybe this explains how, despite its almost comically humble (cracked?) setting, the Liberty Bell has been ringing in multi-generational crowds of locals for more than 30 years.
The Liberty Bell, located at 170 West Broadway, in South Boston, is open Monday–Saturday, from 10:30 am–10 pm. Call 617.269.3916.