Venue Review: West Park Tavern
"Looks like we've finally found it," my wife says as soon as we're seated, the first time we dine at West Park Tavern.
I don't have to ask what she means. Ever since moving across town a couple of years ago, we've been searching for a place near our new home where we could grab a bite on the nights when I'm not reviewing a restaurant and neither of us feels like cooking.
Our requirements are few, but our efforts to find them all under one roof have so far proved futile. A decent draft beer selection is a must. So is a good burger, which I've found to be the ultimate antidote to a restaurant critic's diet. A few reliable alternatives for the occasional change of pace would be a plus.
Sounds like a sports pub, right? Indeed, we've found a number of pubs that satisfy those needs. But they've all failed to meet our final criterion: a relaxed, reasonably quiet atmosphere. The overwhelming majority of sports pubs are by design cavernous spaces with wall-to-wall TVs, and, understandably, an often boisterous clientele.
OK, that last requirement is mainly my wife's. But it's a reasonable one, given that she's such a good sport about accompanying me wherever I need to go for a reivew. And, of course, given that she's my wife.
Stopping in at West Park Tavern not long after it opened last summer, we knew we'd finally found a solution to that problem. Earth tones with natural stone and wood accents instantly put my wife at ease. And, while there are plenty of high-definition screens (I plead guilty to occasionally sneaking a peek over her shoulder), the tavern is broken into small enough spaces that the noise level is tolerable even when the home team scores.
We're able to give a thumbs-up to the attractive curved bar too, which bristles with 14 taps, including a few local brews. An impressive selection of some 80 whiskies - among them a dozen single malts and twice that number of bourbons - is a bonus.
Next on our checklist: burgers. I order the Plain Jane, medium-rare with American cheese. It's a winner, eight ounces of beef grilled just as I've ordered. On a subsequent visit, I try the burger special, which raises the ante with a fried green tomato and homemade pimento cheese. It seems a bit pricy at $12, but the price is justified when a towering sandwich taller than it is wide is set down before me.
My wife can't resist the description of Southern fried chicken, listed under the heading of Main Events: "Sweet tea brined cornmeal-fried chicken breast over Tasso ham grits and seasonal veggies, finished with sausage gravy." It's a daring choice for a first-time visit to a sports pub, I think. But what do I know? It's another solid winner.
And it's not the only alternative to the usual pub fare suspects when the mood for something different strikes. Liberally sprinkled among the wings and nachos and fried pickled chips, you'll find an eclectic offering ranging from banh mi to North Carolina wahoo tostadas.
Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Pete Susca makes the salsa verde for those tostadas from scratch. He smokes the pork for the Western Carolina-style barbecue that he piles onto anything from nachos to mac and cheese, where it joins a crumble topping of Ashe County smoked cheddar and crushed Ritz crackers. He pickles the jalapenos for those nachos, too, and - well, you get the idea. Scratch preparation gets a lot more playing time here than at your typical sports pub.
That said, I'd be inclined to pull the house-battered onion rings out of the starting lineup. On two separate occasions, the batter has been far too thick and heavy. Same goes for the fish and chips.
Given that these are the only out-and-out misses I've encountered from the kitchen (I can give a qualified recommendation to the wings, which were dry the first time I ordered them, better the next time), I can only conclude that batter-fried items are a weak link. Unfortunately, that's a pretty big link for a sports pub.
That's just what I tell Mario Russo when I speak to him on the phone in preparation for writing my review. Russo, who owns West Park Tavern with his brother-in-law Nick Masino and nephew Anthony Masino, has asked if I have any recommendations for improvement.
I tell him about the onion rings and fish and chips, and then I say I hope he's able to make me a liar by the time the review comes out. It's in the restaurant's best interest, after all, as well as that of its customers. In this case, I'm thinking of two customers in particular.