By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
At first, the most surprising thing about Tables is the lines. Big lines that sometimes reach to the door, stretch past it and spill onto the patio, lines that break and become clusters of neighbors squeezed too tightly around four-top cafe tables, gatherings of friends on the sidewalk and nearby benches. As the lines advance toward the front, toward the rustic countertop that looks like it was built from recovered barn timbers and old front doors, they pass a profusion of menus. There's a giant chalkboard menu hung on the wall, paper menus folded by the door, menus spread on the countertop near the pitchers of strawberry-infused iced tea and sheet trays that hold the day's offering of baked goods (fresh cookies wrapped in plastic, brownies, dessert breads and Rice Krispies treats made too loose and with too little marshmallow), menus encased in picture frames telling about drinks and the day's specials. Surprisingly, no one seems to look at any of them.
They're not looking at the decor, either. Bathed in sunlight, the space exudes a dusty, junk-store chic; a sense of having been thrown together over a weekend by friends who fitted it out with mismatched chairs and stuff found in basements and attics, friends who never expected the place to do the kind of business it's doing in this comfortable Park Hill neighborhood and who never expected the lines. The tables from which the restaurant takes its name (at least in part) are rough things -- chipped and battered and worn smooth at the corners, built from wood that's got some history and, in many cases, was something else before it became a table. Most of the tables are from the collection of owner Amy Vitale, and the joke when she and Dustin Barrett opened Tables last year was that Vitale just needed a place to put them all. How else to explain why these two veterans of Strings would open a sandwich shop?
But the people waiting in these lines will take whatever table they can get, whatever seat they can find while the kitchen crew assembles their lunch. It's surprising how many people Tables can handle during a busy lunch, how smoothly, and how, as the line squirms in toward the counter, Vitale seems to know nearly every single person in it.
Park Hill: $6.50
Hot ham sandwich (the Holly): $6
Hudson Street: $6< br>French toast sandwich: $6.50
Egg salad (Smiley Club): $6.50
Antipasti salad: $7
Prosciutto and melon: $8
Tomato salad: $13
Chicken pasta: $16
Sausage and clams: $17
Pork loin: $22
Tables is much more than a sandwich shop, and these are far from standard sandwiches. The hot ham sandwich comes dressed with pineapple, basil and a sambal aioli. It has sliced scallions rather than onions, and the tomatoes are roasted, sweet as candy. The Hudson Street is ham and Swiss cheese dressed with watercress and thin-sliced pears and apricot jam, its sweetness offset by a smear of creamed Dijon mustard. The egg salad comes with smoked salmon and bacon, the derivative croque monsieur on French toast with ham, a honey-maple spread that gives the whole sandwich an overwhelming sweet-over-savory taste, sharp cheddar, bacon, and tomatoes sliced so thin they seem to just melt away. A simple Italian (called the Park Hill) with salami, excellent prosciutto, pepperoni and soft provolone is sharpened by the inclusion of smashed, bittersweet black olives and an herbed oil-and-vinegar dressing that's so thick and rich with herbs it could be a spread. This single sandwich has more than a dozen distinct ingredients, each working in perfect harmony, capped with sweet strips of roasted red pepper that act like a singing high note with every bite.
These are carefully constructed sandwiches. The layers are stacked just so, the breads (crusty Italian for the Park Hill, real marble rye for the Reuben) ideally matched, the ingredients chosen wisely for the way they play together. Two Park Hills ordered two days apart are nearly identical, the components laid on in the same order, in the same ratios, with the same generosity coupled with a weird stinginess that works: lots of salami, just a little prosciutto for salt, four or five strips of roasted pepper, a mere scattering of olives but a lot of herbed oil, light on the vinegar. And even if the lunch special one Saturday -- a salmon burrito-slash-wrap-sandwich that tasted like the leftovers of a bad California/fusion salad wrapped in a tortilla with bitter greens, mango sauce and chunks of smoked salmon -- was pretty much inedible, I should've known better than to order it. A salmon special on a Saturday afternoon? That just screams Friday leftovers, and there was no reason for ordering it save my own infernal curiosity and psychological weakness for fish burritos.
But if lunch at Tables is surprising, dinner is astonishing. In the evening, Tables is a totally different restaurant -- and the difference is literally night and day.
There's a lot of magic on the floor of a good restaurant, a lot of stagecraft that smart chefs, floormen and owners pick up piecemeal over the years. The trick of putting all your servers in soft shoes, the tricks of padded tabletops and the smell of sautéeing onions and garlic wafting over the dining room, the lightbulb tricks (peach-tinted bulbs make everything look better; incandescents make everything look sculpted out of nursery-school paste). Everyone knows that candles and fresh flowers can make even a Denny's seem romantic. A good manager knows all about the power of polished wineglasses, heavy silver and folded napkins on a dinner floor, and a great one understands how people's expectations can be manipulated long before the first plate hits the table with something as simple as the way that napkin is folded, the amount of silver laid out, the flowers in the vase against the wall.