1236 University Ave. (Hillcrest)
Prices: Starters, salads, sliders and flatbreads, $6 to $11.50; entrees, $10 to $16.50
By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Since opening mid-summer in the address formerly occupied by Ono Sushi, the proprietors of Uptown Tavern in Hillcrest have generated instant customer traffic with an accessible, open atmosphere that is matched by artisan cocktails and inventive fare.
Their formula for success was simple. Start with an airy floor plan and centrally positioned bar. Fill the surrounding space with mixed textures and warm, colorful lighting that extends to the façade for curb appeal. Avoid pretentiousness in any form, and maintain a mingling presence with customers as fully involved owners.
“We practically live here,” said Bobby Jones, who launched the venture with restaurateur David Cohen after establishing West Coast Tavern in North Park, which also lures passersby with inviting design elements that are visible from the sidewalk.
For Uptown Tavern, the men turned to architect wizard Michael Soriano for creating an indoor-outdoor flow illuminated by amber light around the bar and indigo beams flanking a new front patio. During renovation, a fireplace was exposed in the rear section, where Soriano lacquered the walls with pages from The New York Times, all dating back – for no particular reason – to 1938. The end result is an atmosphere that feels tastefully down to earth.
The drink and food offerings are both modern and nostalgic. Remember the classic Moscow Mule made with ginger beer? Uptown offers nearly a dozen variations of the effervescent cocktail, which reportedly sparked the vodka craze among Americans in the early 1950s. Dating further back is the Sidecar, invented in Paris during World War II and resurrected at Uptown using rye whiskey instead of bourbon.
While I reveled in the tipplers, my companion slugged a couple red Sangrias that tasted like I always wish Sangria would taste: highly fruity but without the sugary overtones. Brandy and spiced rum go into the recipe, which explained its robust body.
Hate Brussels sprouts? You won’t cast aside this preparation from a list of appetizers that also includes deviled eggs, fried olives and nut-stuffed Medjool dates wrapped in bacon. Chef Eli Freebairn first chars the little cabbage balls until they become heavily caramelized. He then tosses them in citrus vinaigrette for balance and drapes the dish with shaved Parmesan cheese that slowly melts into the sprouts as you go along. We opted for the addition of bacon, which left me gushing over a vegetable that I used to sneak into the garbage bucket as a kid.
The deviled eggs also incorporate bacon, but in teenier bits that mingled with micro-diced green peppers and a dusting of paprika. They were a step above the picnic variety. We followed up with hot wings that could have withstood an extra five minutes in the deep fryer for a crispier finish. Their skins were soft, though not rubbery, and the sauce was pleasantly feisty. The twist was the accompanying pickled celery and Gorgonzola dressing served alongside, a nice break from the stringy stalks and weak blue cheese dips I often encounter elsewhere.
Niçoise salad was a picture-perfect ensemble of baby potatoes, meaty olives, sweet tomatoes, green beans and hard-boiled eggs. We added a slab of unseasoned raw ahi tuna to the scheme, which adopted most of its flavor from sporadic bursts of vinaigrette and the other ingredients on the plate. A little salt and oil over everything would make this a French masterpiece.
The menu progresses to flatbreads, sliders and specialty entrees that include chicken and waffles, steak frites and an intriguing medley of quinoa, farro and leeks jazzed up with mint, garlic and ginger. My inner vegetarian told me to wait until next time for that dish.
We instead dove into a hefty filet of grilled Scottish salmon dressed in basil pesto and pico de gallo. The chef applies the toppings judiciously, ensuring that the distinct, creamy flavor of the salmon isn’t lost to the garlic and herbs that go into the garnishments.
“Best fish dish I’ve had in a long time,” my companion concluded.
From the sliders list, we ordered a pair filled with pulled meat from beef short ribs. Though highly ubiquitous to modern-day menus, these caught our eye because of the addition of shaved fennel, caramelized red onions and, best of all, horseradish cream sauce. My faith in sliders was restored.
We somehow managed to conquer a canning jar filled with peaches and cream, made with scads of cream, in fact. We then learned that the kitchen’s pride-and-joy is pistachio bread pudding. So we took home an order, heated it the next day and went gaga over the ultra-buttery caramel sauce crowning the top and the creamy custard binding the bread.
Uptown Tavern caters well to bar-goers looking to rub elbows with friends over a few stiff drinks while also appealing to diners on the hunt for lively “tavern” food. The free-flowing design of the place, combined with a zero-attitude staff and ownership, seems the no-brainer recipe for repeat business.