If you've eaten recently around the Tri Park area -- the nexus of Myers, South and Madison -- you have probably noticed a burgeoning trend: more and better locally owned restaurants. Not all of these ventures are chef-driven: Some are inclined to capitalize on this young neighborhood's proclivity for casual dining.
At first glance, The Tavern on Park suggests an enlivened watering hole. Not that long ago, the space housed a national chain, the Massachusetts-based Bertucci's, which failed in many markets. Tavern's owner Brian Snediker drew on years of experience from Roanoke, Va., to nudge this eatery into existence last September. In Virginia, Snediker was a founding partner of Corned Beef & Co. Bar & Grill, a downtown Roanoke restaurant, bar and entertainment spot. He left that life for the software business, ultimately moving to Charlotte, but now has returned.
On the quiet side of the shopping center, The Tavern on Park caters to a lunch crowd as well as offers dinner and a late bar. Snediker changed the interior considerably by dividing the space into one area containing a 35-foot bar facing the 125-seat covered patio. Now the dining room seats 110, has light filtered through framed wavy glass, and features one section with what Snediker calls three-sided "Mafia" booths which seat eight comfortably.
Tavern's appetizer menu focuses on typical upscale bar food: a series of flatbreads, chicken satay, spinach artichoke dip with goat cheese, and tuna carpaccio. But complicated recipes have a tendency to fail by being fussy and overcomplicated. Fried oysters, for example, dot pieces of flat bread, but are suffocated by heavy cream laced with bits of Andouille sausage. Classics like the wonderfully crisp calamari fare better even if the marinara is a yawn.
Many of the salads come in two sizes, with the option to add shrimp and oysters, chicken, or steak. Among the salads, the simplest is the best: the chopped salad with blue cheese crumbles, chicken, and roasted garlic, even if the chick peas are overkill.
Even in these sandwich-saturated times, The Tavern on Park will stand out -- not for the burgers (although the tables around us ordered them), but for the Cuban sandwich served all day. Everything about this sandwich works: flavorful mojo marinated roasted pork, thin slices of ham, the sharp notes of sour pickles, mustard, and Swiss cheese married into Cuban bread via a press. Delicious. Chef Andrés Arboleda, a Columbian by birth, spent time in Miami's kitchens, and it shows.
While the kitchen displays strength with some dishes, others are humdrum. Take the shrimp and grits, a quintessential Low Country dish. Unfortunately, somewhere between Charleston and the rest of the world, this dish has been hijacked. Suddenly grits need to have cheese in order to taste. In a rock-paper-scissors kind of way, adding cheese subordinates the taste of corn, precisely the flavor profile -- the balance between corn, sweet shrimp and spicy sausage -- that is the best interpretation of this humble dish.
The one food, though, which sets the bar for bars -- or eateries that include one -- are French fries. The fries at Tavern are first-rate -- better than that. The desserts are equally flamboyant yet solid: chocolate bourbon pecan pie, carrot cake and lemon blueberry cheesecake. But the best of them, curiously, is the simplest: the insanely rich chocolate layer cake.
The service may be too personal: I met all of the servers and couldn't help but overhear the voluble conversations at nearby tables between servers and patrons.
Sandwich prices are $8 or $9 including chips or fries, while entrees range from $16 to $24 for pepper-crusted tuna with stir-fried vegetables. Wednesday is half off bottles of wine. Sunday brunch started recently. That menu includes a bloody Mary bar, mojitos, four variations of Benedict, French toast, omelettes, and a kids menu with prices from $3 to $6.
When you eat at a place that has tavern/bar/pub in the name, you automatically lower your sights for food that's conventional; the menu at The Tavern on Park complies. However, the staff as well as the kitchen reveals an eagerness to please, which is welcomed in any part of town.
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The Tavern on Park, 1600 Woodlawn Road in Park Towne Village. 704-519-4740. Hours: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. until 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. until 11 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Live entertainment on Friday and Saturday. www.thetavernonpark.com