As I walk into American Elm at 4132 West 38th Avenue, my nostalgia for something that's not really even gone kicks in. The dark atmosphere, classy and intimate decor and long, narrow space divided evenly between the bar and dining room all remind me of The Way Back, way back before it relocated from this address to 3963 Tennyson Street two years ago.
The nostalgia fuels outsized disappointment as I recall the Way Back's bar menu — one of the best drink-snack experiences in the Highland area at the time. While you can still stroll down Tennyson’s bougie strip to the eatery's newer location, I always liked the sense of cheeky discovery that gave it a kind of neighborhood magic. Would American Elm live up to its predecessor?
The good news is that American Elm maintains a similar vibe as the old Way Back, with dim lighting, a ten-seat bar at the center of the action, a scattering of high-tops, and a chic dining area with a banquette spanning one side. It's surprisingly quiet at nearly 6 p.m. on a Friday evening, with just a handful of customers at the bar and a couple or two seated in the dining area. But this allows my happy-hour companion and me to grab a high-top next to the glass-paneled garage door leading to the patio.
I immediately appreciate the way the new configuration (a new door and foyer were added when American Elm took over) insulates diners from street traffic. When weather permits, the garage doors open up to a patio (perfect for brunch) with several tables and a gravel-covered lounge area. Although there are only a handful of dedicated parking spots, visitors can also use the spaces across the alley after 5 p.m. or find parking along Quitman Street. Cyclists will appreciate the well-placed bike racks just outside the patio.
American Elm’s happy hour is short, from 5 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4 to 6 p.m. on Fridays. The straightforward menu covers five small plates, two specialty cocktails and select beers and wines, all for just $5 each. The menu also advertises $2 oysters, implying a happy-hour discount, but the price turns out to be good all night. I order a half-dozen anyway, because I can’t help myself, along with a $5 cocktail called the Bobby Lee Swagger, a light and refreshing tequila, lime and grenadine drink. Then we turn our attention to the actual happy-hour food, a list short and cheap enough that we order the whole lot.
The stark, simple menu states only “roasted olives & nuts, deviled eggs, crab fritters and animal crackers,” so it’s easy to glide over or misinterpret “animal crackers." I'm pleasantly surprised, then, when a plate of fried pork skin, beef tendon and chicken skin arrives. Each crackly wafer presents a slightly different texture: The chewy, spicy beef tendon comes out on top, while the pork belly tests my grease and salt tolerance but still melts in my mouth. The crab fritters turn out to be “more fritter than crab,” as my friend describes them — more like a hush puppy with a creamy dipping sauce than a true crab cake. I leave them to him to finish.
Our oysters arrive as happy hour comes to a close; the place has livened up considerably with newly arrived guests, an older crowd I rarely see clustered in one Highland location. (I imagine the non-happy-hour menu prices might keep younger neighbors away.) The oysters, half East Coast and half West, are divine and worth the $2 price, even if I do find a few shell flakes. The Atlantic/Pacific split shows off each oyster's distinct coastal qualities (a marked salinity vs. a bright tang), making both shine. Finally, we move on to the 100 percent passable deviled eggs, each garnished with a small cube of pork belly fried to a hard crunch, leaving me craving bacon bits.
Lingering over meaty olives, so-so spiced nuts and the last of my cocktail, I consider my earlier nostalgia and realize it was just that: wishing for the days of yore. But nostalgia doesn't come with $5 cocktails, so I'll stick with the here and now at American Elm.
American Elm is located at 4132 West 38th Avenue and serves happy hour from 5 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4 to 6 p.m. on Fridays. Call 720-749-3186 or visit the restaurant's website for more information.