Upscale comfort food, rookie servers at popular Dilworth eatery "It'll be about 15 minutes," the hostess of Red Star Tavern
informed us. "You can wait in the bar." She handed us a pager. We made our way through a thicket of casually dressed people, but discovered there was little room to stand, much less sit. After five minutes, a party of five was escorted from the upholstered seating area and we quickly secured their location. Twenty minutes later, our pager lit up and we were guided to the main dining room section. Around our table were five empty circular booths, each large enough to seat five, and at least four vacant expandable four-tops. "What's up with the wait," I later asked General Manager Andreas Androutsos.
He replied, "Funny you should ask. I just received a letter about the same thing. We have a rookie staff here and we don't want to ram the kitchen with too many orders. So we have people wait instead." O-Kay.
Red Star Tavern, which opened in June in the Latta Pavilion on the corner of Scott and East Boulevard, is the current spot for schmoozing and smooching in Dilworth. The space is well appointed, with soaring ceilings, subtle wood, earthy flagstone, reddish "leather" booths, custom lighting, a fireplace, and 400 seats (when used). Smoking, which is permitted in the 100-seat bar area, drifts into the adjoining primary dining area. If this bothers you, choose a seat in the back dining room toward the kitchen.
Red Star's menu offers 18 martinis, 26 tap and bottled beers, and about that many wines by the bottle or glass, most under $50. The food is "upscale comfort" and is basically finely rendered bar food: chips and salsa, wings and raw oysters, baby back ribs and burgers, rotisserie chicken and tuna melts, blackened chicken and blackened salmon. No reductions and caramelizing here. The recipes were created to replicate success in Chicago and have a Midwestern slant. Chef Ryan Quick, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University and a Charlottean, is the top torque. Some of the sauces, such as the barbecue sauce, are bottled in Chicago and shipped here.
As noted, the staff is rather green. On one occasion, our server nearly gave us her life's entire play-by-play, which vaguely amused us as we patiently awaited the Sunday alcohol ban to expire so our Bloodies could arrive. On another occasion, our server asked if we wanted to take our empty wine bottle home. Really -- I could not make that up. And, as so often seems to happen at chain restaurants, a number of people stopped by our table to whisk away plates before each person at the table had finished -- my number one pet peeve.
It only makes sense to start with shrimp and crab cakes, a bar menu bellwether. Two smallish meaty, but slightly gooey, cakes were gussied forth with slaw and remoulade sauce. The fried calamari were better.
Of the entrees, the succulent baby-back ribs need never worry about abandonment. These are glorious. The 10-ounce sirloin proved a bit chewy for a sirloin, but the fries were a hit. The seared mahi mahi fish tacos are handsomely presented three to a plate, slathered with chipotle aioli, buoyed by slaw, guacamole, and black beans. The Tavern's version of Mac & Cheese is decidedly not Southern, but a cheesy pasta dish nevertheless. The burger, an uber-Whopper with melted cheddar, was sensational. The desserts were merely extreme sugar.
Sides, enough for two, such as coleslaw, baked sweet or white potatoes, rice and beans can be ordered separately for $3.95. Entrees run $10 for a burrito to $22 for a blue cheese-crusted eight-ounce filet. Burgers, salads, and sandwiches range from $7 to $13.
Restaurant Development Group of Chicago opened Red Star Tavern as their first food and beverage concept in Charlotte. RDG is owned by Roger Greenfield and Ted Kasemir. In addition to the other Red Star locations in Pittsburgh; Geneva, IL; Deerfield, IL; Columbus, OH; and Ft. Wayne, IN, RDG also owns 30 other restaurants nationwide. Androutsos said RDG is planning "more concepts throughout the Carolinas" although he gave no time frame.
Even though it's quite clear that the staff is still in training, Red Star Tavern's food reveals a comfortable familiarity that can be enjoyed with a few drinks and some friends.