Open for breakfast Monday through Friday, 7 to 9:45 a.m., weekends, 8 to 11 a.m. Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner, Tuesday througfh Saturday, 7 to 10 p.m. No credit cards. Reservations.
Food: Home cooking with a good upbringing
Style: Like the breakfast room of a stately home
Price: Full dinners $10, lunch dishes average $4
For YEARS the restaurant of the Tabard Inn has waited to happen. The sunny rear dining room has lain in wait for a proprietor, its garden harboring potential springtime lunching, uptil last summer it was brought back to life. One is tempted not just to stop in the Tabard Inn for dinner, but to spend the evening over brandy before the fire in the darkly paneled lounge, to stay the night in one of the upstairs rooms, to stick around for breakfast.
The informality of the dining room, with its green and white checkerboard floor and whitewashed brick walls, forms a pleasant counterpoint to the more stately ambience of the other parts of this converted townhouse of a hotel. Sun streams through the restaurant's windows and skylight; in the evening, candles are the primary illumination. It has been dressed for fun rather than and pretense of elegance, with primitive paintings and paper cutouts on the walls, table-cloths - some vinyl, some cloth - centered with flowers in Perrier bottles. Assorted chairs, from red-lacquered and rush-seated to church pews, are among the most prominent ornaments.
The menu makes strong statements. "All dishes are prepared with natural meats, fresh vegetables, herbs, fruit," it announces. The BLT, it wants to make perfectly clear, is constructed with nitrite-free bacon. There is an unassailable commitment to borne cooking with irreproachable ingredients, right down to the mint growing in the garden. The choices are circumspect - a few platters, a few sandwiches, a few salads - but the list was compiled with thought, and each day brings specials which take advantage of the market's changing assets. One day there might be mussels, buttery and aromatic with scalbicos and bell peppers, another day a dark, caraway stodded goulash and a bitey arugola salad. To start with the soup, which is a rewarding place to start, it could be mushroom or celery with dill or chicken broth. In any case it will be fresh and robust, buttery or creamy or meaty, flecked with healthy looking parsley. On the lunch menu one regularly finds a six-ounce hamburger heavily seasoned with onion and garnished with a choice of eggplant relish or chutney (beg for a taste of both, because you wouldn't want to miss either). The hamburger is cooked just to the degree ordered, and served California-style, which means on a bun, or with a salad. Probably the best lunch choice is yakitori, a daily special which was promoted to a regular. It is several small skewers of cubed chicken breast interspersed with scallions, the meat juicy and scented with soy sauce, ginger and sherry, the plate garnished with soy-darkened fried rice crunchy with bits of vegetable. Even the plain roast chicken shows the beauty of simplicity based on distinguished ingredients. And every dish has a zesty treat accompanying it - a tart rice salad, a garlicky yogurt-cucumber melange, wedges of potato fried with the skin intact. Salads - greens, lentils, spinach, vegetables-and-feta - are equally distinguished.
Dinner is a simple affair of two fixed-price menus at $10 or a choice of chopped steak or cold dishes (smoked salmon, roast beef sandwich, fruit and cheese or main dish salad, most around $4). The fixed-price meals might be a rib steak - simple, hearty, unmemorable - or something more original, one happy day a pork schnitzel rolled in fresh bread crumbs and fried until just-cooked and still juicy.
Home cooking translated into restaurant cooking is bound to err sometimes as it adjusts to the volume and erratic demands. And so at the Tabard Inn I have been served luke-warm mussels overdosed with sand, chewy souvlaki and stews seasoned with too much ardor. However, the touch of human hands - unlike burger-flipping machines and factory frying - has inconsistencies that deserves appreciation rather than carping.
And a meal at the Tabard Inn is bracketed with beverages and desserts which speak of sensory salvation along with the caloric sin they have to live down. A bloody mary here is made with pepper vodka and dashed with a barbecue scent, or you could have it under another name with bouillon. In any case, it is clearly not a manufactured mix. The kir is fine, made even finer when ordered with champagne. The Tabard Inn offers only four bottled wines, but they are nice ones, priced at only $6. In winter, there is mulled cider, and the coffee is worth lingering for.
Ah, dessert.Wonders of chocolate. Cakes made with no flour. European-style. A German chocolate cake unlike - thank goodness - any other in town, dense and rich and bittersweet. A nutty, also bittersweet rehruecken, glazed with more chocolate and dolloped with heavy whipped cream. Wrench yourself from chocolate, and you'll still have crisp apple strudel, its filling tart and faintly pink because the skin was left on the apples. There is also a robust walnut cake which tastes too - well - healthy, and whatever fresh fruit is in season.
If the food seems as if it came from a good home, so does the service, at once enthusiastic and a bit clumsy and vaguely adolescent. The welcome is warm, but the fork may be forgotten. The waiter runs, but the cook is a few orders behind. The waitress gladly reveals all the ins and outs of the menu, but clears the table with a reluctance because that is not the fun part of the job.
Amateurism and individuality don't come cheap in our society. Made-to-order is an exorbitant word. Thus, the Tabard Inn's impressive hamburgers costs $3.75, the soups $1.50, even the antipasto $2.75. Main dishes at lunch average $4, so hitting the highlights from drinks through dessert will add up to $10 a person once you have left a tip. At dinner the fixed price meals with drinks and wine will edge over $30 a couple.
Even so, don't try to go without reservations, because already a lot of downtown office workers are enjoying what they fancy is their secret place.