Do you want food with your spirits or spirits with your food? There’s no shame either way, but you will be happiest with your dining choice if you square up to this question first.
For me it comes down to the difference between Saturday and Friday nights. On Saturday, I like to go to restaurants that serve the food I’m craving and have a good glass of wine to wash it down. It’s simple.
But let’s backtrack a day to Friday. To that final push of the work week, to that drive home, to that feeling that I want nothing as much as a cocktail. Or a beer. Or, perhaps, two. No more than that, mind you, because I’m not looking to get ’faced. Plus, I do want to eat — preferably some sort of hand-held tastiness that doesn’t require anything as fancy or labor-intensive as a fork. A burger. A nut-brown hunk of fried fish with some fries and a shake of malt vinegar. A wedge of warm pita dragged through a tasty smear of hummus. TGIF: Thank God It’s Food. If it’s good food, all the better.
Lately we’ve had a rash of new bars, pubs and taverns that cater to this need, but with a gourmet-minded take on both the beer lists and menus. And why not? It’s dining for the times, when we’re all looking for inexpensive comfort in liquid and patty forms. Yet some of these spots are just too foodie-foodie for their own good. By the time you wrap your mind around that complicated fish special, you’re no longer at the corner bar.
Deckard’s American Tavern — a new Midtown spot from Taco Mac’s corporate chef Matthew Deckard — strikes a tone that feels just right. Neither too highbrow nor too divey, it’s the Goldilocks of gastropubs. This upstairs aerie (the former Matsuri Japanese Restaurant) has a comfy anywheresville pub vibe with solid booths and flat screens galore. The beer list features 24 choices on draft from a shiny copper dispenser, and another 75 craft ales and lagers in bottles. The menu makes room for everything from nice cheese and cured meat platters to chili, meatloaf and sandwiches. It even has a fun gimmick: a lineup of New England-style steam kettles from which a cook tips various steaming stews and pasta dishes into bowls. But after three visits, I have yet to find as much interest in this food as I do in the beer.
Some of the dishes sound more fun than they taste. A “bag o’ pretzels” ($5) brings a paper sack filled with pretzel rolls and a little ramekin of spicy sumpin-sumpin (“cherry pepper dijonaise”). Fine, but the rolls are so leathery and springy and weirdly steamy in the center that they seem to have been zapped.
So not a biggie. I’m just drinking and noshing and — look! — here comes a Scotch egg ($5) wrapped in house-made sausage. It’s a huge thing, cut in half, dry as a bone. Schlitz-battered onion rings ($7) have done us best in absorption mode. They’re fat, crunchy and satisfyingly greasy if wearing enough batter to qualify as armor.
I’ve liked a couple of the sandwiches quite a lot. The Pig Pen ($9) unites a chorizo patty with queso fresco and a snappy jalapeño-cilantro relish in a soft bun. The pastrami Reuben ($8) is as promised and thankfully not one of those grease-dripping grilled Reubens but one of those fresh ones with a high pile of meat.
Alas, other sandwiches don’t do the trick as well. The pimento cheeseburger ($8) arrives with a thick, hot glaze of the salty cheese spread on an unseasoned patty. You don’t really taste the meat. The salmon BLT ($11), a slippery pile of ingredients on hard-toasted country-style bread, defies jaws. Your only course of attack is knife and fork.
And I don’t know what to say about those steam kettles, other than they make an attractive visual focus between the bar and the open kitchen. The menu dishes up some warm verbiage about New England oyster stews and chowders cooked in these contraptions, and the kitchen follows with watery concoctions dumped over pasta. Both the Sausalito linguine ($16) with garlic sausage and mixed shellfish in tomato sauce and the Thai shrimp and scallops ($15) in a strange soy-sauce-seasoned red curry might’ve worked better had they been tossed with a concentrated sauce in a good old sauté pan.
Little details are off at this tavern. The chips surrounding the otherwise tasty Guinness black bean chili ($6) are rancid. A house salad ($6) that we had requested without bacon turned up a piece. On one visit, a table setting is blanketed in a patina of dust. That thick batter that was acceptable on onion rings kills a hunk of fried flounder ($12). A side of cheddar grits is so lukewarm, lumpy and stiff that even Oliver Twist would take a pass. (“No more for me, sir!”)
One great detail Deckard’s gets right is the beer list. It’s a gorgeously curated list of drafts and bottles from some of the most interesting craft brewers today — Dogfish Head, Lagunitas, Duck Rabbit, Unibroue and, natch, Atlanta’s own Sweetwater. A friend and I splurged on a 25-ounce bottle of Allagash Confluence Ale ($28), a lovely yellow beer with a creamy mousse and a bright citrus flavor following through and enough in the way of malt and hops to keep it from turning into lemon meringue pie.
The service is also on top of things — quick with the tea refills and attuned to issues that may arise. One waiter took my wife’s dish off the check when she returned it mostly uneaten. I would like this guy to wait on my table any time — provided I can find a few more dishes I want to eat here. Even simple pub grub. Something for that lovely beer to wash down.DECKARD’S AMERICAN TAVERN 650 Ponce de Leon Ave., Midtown, 404-941-3520 Food: pub gub with upscale touches Service: friendly and attentive Best dishes: Pig Pen chorizo burger, pastrami Reuben Vegetarian selections: one vegetarian pasta entree, side dishes and salads