Restaurant review: The Tavern

By Columbus Alive
From the September 20, 2012 edition

Like its overachieving menu, The Tavern in Olde Towne East is a still-honeymooning mixed marriage. I’d describe it as a successful wedding of something old (the building is a one-time pharmacy, hauntingly preserved through a circa 1914 photograph plus an ostensibly intact original ceiling); something new (a go-to neighborhood hangout in what was a stay-away area); something borrowed (the long wooden bar and several unmistakable menu items are straight outta Youngstown); and an all-ages crowd of partiers talking themselves blue in the face.

If the Babel-like din doesn’t put you off, The Tavern can turn you on with its tippling-propelled vivacity, rustically chic interior (brick walls, distressed wooden floor, sporty TVs, gothically black-clad light fixtures), secluded yet happening patio plus semi-amusing wine list and huge beer selection. Oh yeah, and its surprisingly engaging food, which rises above and beyond what you might initially expect from a quick menu read-through — unless you know about a Monkey Salad, M&M appetizer and Brier Hill pizza.

See, those are classic regional dishes (alas, a dying breed) emanating from the deep Italian-American roots of Youngstown, from whence some of The Tavern’s owners and workers arose. Though these Northeast Ohio munchies aren’t the stated focus of the menu, to miss out on their purposeful existence is in part to miss out on the point of this place.

To the casual observer, said Y-Town specialties are inconspicuously nestled among The Tavern’s appetizers (where de rigueur bar bites like hummus, wings and nachos appear), salads, soups, pizzas and sandwiches. This is not to suggest they’re the only things worth seeking out, as the game-changing Beet Sliders ($9) attest.

Encased in extra-crisply griddled mini-rolls were disarmingly meaty slabs of roasted beets that instantaneously reminded me these root vegetables are also at the core of Northstar’s incomparable meatless bun-bound masterpieces. Raw onion and an herby aioli are perfect foils for these “fooled ya!” burgerettes.

Mozzarella and Marinara ($7, “M&M” in Y-Town slang) is The Tavern’s other must-have app. It’s a killer, feeds-four pancake of smashed and crunchily caramelized salty cheese doused in a rich red sauce. Call it freaky fricco.

Italian Wedding Soup is taken so seriously in Youngstown that I’ve heard from an expat pal that families regularly quarrel over it. I like that. I also like The Tavern’s herby, homey and spinach-y version ($3), though my Y-Town insider complained it was sorely lacking in its miniscule meatball population.

The same informant claimed The Tavern’s riotous Monkey Salad ($5) was an appreciated hometown upgrade. It was a bold and salty ensemble of sliced romaine, dense salami cubes, mozzarella, tuna fish and a perky vinaigrette. It’s about as subtle as a car bomb.

If The Tavern’s Brier Hill pizza ($12, named after Youngstown’s original “Little Italy” district) — a pleasantly crispy, craggy and bready golden brown crust heavily slathered in sweet tomato sauce topped with peppers and onions plus a sprinkling of Romano cheese — ain’t your thing, at least be glad it still exists.

You’ll definitely be happy ripping through The Tavern’s excellent sandwiches like the Thanksgiving-worthy Tavern Turkey ($7, a ton o’ warm, juicy and house-roasted poultry with basil aioli on superb Angry Baker whole wheat toast); the stoner-iffic Buffalo Bleu ($7, over-the-top combo of oozy melted cheeses, pulled chicken, hot sauce and great sourdough toast); and the Italian Sausage ($8). Call that last one a thumbs-up, spicy hot Youngstown mess.

Photos by Tim Johnson