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Tavern Talk

Creating a financially successful tavern isn't tough. Aside from a ham-and-cheese-sandwich joint that gives away free booze and hand jobs, no restaurant venture offers a better rate of return than your average tavern, and unless you're a congenitally bad businessman, you should have some cash in the register at the end of each day.

From a customer's perspective, a successful tavern is a wonderful thing -- a social accessory as necessary to your health and general well-being as good friends, one really nice suit, a fast red car and an understanding accountant. It's a combination clubhouse/fortress, a satisfying default choice for any situation requiring both dining and drinking, and a potential alibi for everything from serial infidelity to murder. A proper tavern is never a theme park (which rules out Planet Hollywood, as well as that place on the corner where the Mexican line cooks make Vietnamese spring rolls and the bartender -- a former Hooters waitress fired for her moral lassitude -- mixes beer-and-Jäger depth charges in ceramic tiki heads), doesn't offer beer that's anything other than beer-flavored, and is on a first-name basis with at least half of its clientele, with half of those regulars sitting on outstanding tabs in the triple digits. A proper tavern never sees more than one bar fight a year -- and then only a goofy spat where a couple of middle-aged guys get into a shoving match over something inconsequential, like one's serial infidelity or the other's outstanding bar tab. And if a proper tavern's gone more than twelve months without a good dust-up, then the owner should have the decency to pick a fight with someone just so the rummies and neighbors have something to talk about and people don't start thinking the joint's become a fern bar. Above and beyond all this, a tavern that's successful for both its owner and its customers has four things:

1. A comfortable bar. This spot is a tavern, after all, distinguished from a brewpub by its admission that all lagers taste pretty much like lagers and all decent stouts like stouts, thereby negating the need for valuable back-bar real estate to be filled with 117 noble-gas-fired taps dispensing cranberry lambic and hard cider; distinguished from a regular pub by its lack of any Gaelic Republican cuteness or faux-Beefeater pretension; and distinguished from a regular bar by a menu that includes more than stale pretzels or Skittles from the vending machine by the door. A tavern's bar should be a place where you can sit happily for four or five years, getting sloshed and memorizing the name of every brand of small-batch bourbon on the market when you really should have been studying for the bar exam (or medical boards or poli-sci final), then remember fondly a few years later while sitting through your disbarment hearing (or malpractice suit or congressional censure).

2. A menu. A tavern without a menu isn't a tavern, it's a bar (as noted above). The menu doesn't have to be great, but it must have something more than burgers and chicken wings -- a nice steak, some intelligently chosen appetizers and snacks. This is a delicate balancing act: Too little on the menu (or even a long menu done too simply) and you fall away from the tavern ideal; anything too complicated and you run the risk of becoming a bistro or a cafe -- and there's nothing worse than seeing a good tavern going over to the dark side by hiring a chef who suddenly gets it in his head to offer tournedos or wasabi-glazed pork loin.

3. A crowd. There's nothing in the world sadder than an empty tavern. Nothing.

4. One thing that your tavern does better than any other. There are a lot of taverns out there (more fake ones than real, but still), and each one that's truly successful features something unique. It can be something surprising, like the kitchen using a really good local produce without bragging. It can be something stupid, like having a pickled lemur in a jar of formaldehyde behind the bar that acts as official mascot for the house softball team -- called, of course, the Pickled Lemurs. It can be something notable, like an unusually talented bartender or the best hot dogs in town or cans of cheap, white-trash beer on offer (an overused gimmick at this point). Or it can be something nasty, like the worst bathrooms in the city or sanctioned cannibalism like at that joint in Alaska that serves the "sour toe cocktail," made of mystery liquor and the amputated toes of frostbite victims. No matter what its singular feature might be, a true tavern has something that separates it from the rest, even if it's something best not discussed in polite company -- because, frankly, nothing can wreck a good tavern faster than polite company.

And that's it: a decent bar, a thick steak, a raucous crowd, some pickled toes. If you look around town at the taverns that follow this simple quartet of rules -- faithfully holding the restaurant middle ground against all comers and pouring their drinks stiff, fast and tall -- you'll see a crowd of places doing well, despite all the doom-and-gloom stories coming from opposite ends of the food-service spectrum. The West End Tavern(see review) is killing 'em nightly, with a wait for tables on the upstairs patio at all prime hours. I'll say this about owner Dave Query: We may not always see eye to eye on what makes a good restaurant, but the man moves the numbers.

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