Bite Me

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.

The West End is Query's only actual tavern, but there's another good one just up the street from Lola, the Mexican coastal spot he owns with chef Jamey Fader at 1469 South Pearl Street in Denver. At Hanson's Grill & Tavern (1301 South Pearl) the food can be marginal, but the kitchen does a commendable burger -- and the bar is definitely comfortable. The unique thing this tavern offers: free pool upstairs in the game room every day but Friday. Over at 265 Detroit Street, Chinook Tavern calls itself a tavern, but it's really a restaurant -- a good one (see "Classic Act," June 9), but one that spends too much time and effort on the food to qualify for tavern status in my highly nitpicky cosmology. In short: If a place has a dessert tray, it isn't a tavern.

Not far from Chinook, at 3000 East Third Avenue, is Brix -- which, in styling itself as the anti-bistro came out pro-tavern, with a simple menu, good beer (including paper-bagged cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon), a great staff and the best music in town. (Where else are you going to hear "Smack My Bitch Up" and the Ghetto Boyz doing "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta" over dinner, except maybe at my house?) True, a wine list is usually an inexcusable sin for a tavern, but forgivable here because it's inexpensive and smartŠand besides, calling Brix a wine bar instead of a tavern would mean I could never go there again.

Brix partners Chuck and Charlie (Cattaneo and Master, respectively) are working on a second place in the Ballpark neighborhood -- Brix Mark II, or whatever they're calling it these days -- that was supposed to open within the next few weeks but now has been pushed back to a highly tentative mid-September date. (No serious troubles, they say, just the usual headaches of negotiating a new joint.) In the meantime, the original Brix has amped up its menu to include some summer seafoods and simple Asian fare, which sounds dangerously froufrou, but remember, this is Brix. So the ahi tuna app comes slathered in a 50/50 soy/wasabi mix that makes it like a dumb white guy's attempt at eating sushi, deliberately breaking that sushi-bar rule that says only boors and knuckleheads mix their wasabi in with their soy sauce. But that's how Charlie likes his raw fish, so that's how he serves it. True tavern behavior.

Bar none: Although it might not be the first place that leaps to mind when you're talking tavern, I'd argue that Mezcal qualifies, too. It's on Colfax (3230 East, to be exact), which puts it halfway to tavern status from the get-go. It also has a fine bar, tended by a fine staff and stocked with some of the finest stuff on earth: artisan, small-batch mezcals and tequilas with just as much weight and complexity as wines of similar caliber. It has a crowd -- sometimes more of a crowd than it can handle, but mostly a neighborhood crowd of serious gastronauts who give the dining room its incomparable viva la Mexico-gone-bamboo kinda vibe. It has chef Roberto Diaz in the galley every night, lending some serious Chihuahuan culinary cred to what could otherwise be just another Tecate-soaked salsa dive. And finally, it has a menu that's tavern classic. Yes, it's Mexican food, but there's no rule in my canon that says a tavern can't be ethnic.

Mezcal has something else going for it, and that's the freedom (earned by not trying to go too fast, too far, or for anything too fancy) to move beyond its humble origins, and reach forŠ

Actually, I don't know quite what to call what Mezcal's reaching for. It isn't fine dining (perish the thought). It isn't any kind of false pretension (which would be an impossible fit for the location). Just something bigger.

For starters, Mezcal's just launched a new brunch menu that's the sort of thing people cross borders for. Chilaquiles with grilled chicken in a guajillo chile sauce; simple biscuits and gravy with chorizo gravy; my favorite huevos divorciados (two eggs, one dressed in a rough ranchero salsa, the other in green tomatillo); and puffy griddle cakes served with spiced maple syrup and poblano-spiked hash browns. This lineup comes straight out of the sometimes contentious, head-to-head culinary one-upmanship between Diaz and consulting chef Sean Yontz. That relationship also leads to monthly, booze-fueled, prix fixe extravaganzas like the Del Maguey Mezcal dinner last week. It was a six-course tasting menu, wonderfully paired with five flights of Del Maguey (brought in by Ron Cooper, Taos-based mezcal point-man and bona fide cactus-juice prophet) and one of Los Danzantes, courtesy of Jaime Muñoz, who made the trip in from Oaxaca just for dinner.  

I'd showed up thinking I'd have snacks with friends, maybe taste a little of the product, then light out for a proper dinner elsewhere. Five hours later, I was slouched at the end of the bar drinking straight sangrita to clear my head, talking with Cooper and Mezcal owner Jesse Morreale about the stimulant effect of pure agave cactus and wondering where the hell my night had gone. We'd eaten masa-fried soft-shell crabs, inside-out lobster tamales (the tamal stuffed into the empty lobster shell, the lobster tail curled around a pile of Mexican saffron rice) and a whole suckling pig roasted overnight and served with pipi´n (pumpkin seed) salsa. The meal was a wonderful blur, and by the time the glasses of Los Danzantes were passed around (it was almost like sipping brandy), I was sure the guys at Mezcal were on to something with this menu fluctuation between high-end and low-, this any-excuse-for-a-party mentality. Or up to something. Or into something. Hell, I don't know. I just know that I had a great time, and that is the only true measure of a great tavern.

Leftovers: It ain't a tavern, but Steak Au Poivre opened June 6 in the former Manhattan Grill space at 231 Milwaukee Street, with Marco Colantonio on the floor, Le Central veterans Yoann Lardeux and Tobias Burkhalter in the kitchen, and a menu packed with such French- bistro mainstays and cuisine de grandmère as escargot with chervil butter, frog legs Provençal, coq au vin, steak bavette and ultra-classic salmon en papillote.

Finally, Corky Douglass isn't letting the old girl go without a party. Through June 24, Tante Louise will serve $49 prix fixe dinners featuring some of those plates -- escargot, sweetbreads, stuffed pheasant -- that made the place great for 32 years.

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