Sometimes, bad restaurants happen to good locations. Like the tony intersection of Eighth and Fitzwater, catty-corner from Cianfrani Park, where multiculti tykes tumble with shelter pooches while the last sentries of the old guard look on from the benches, grumbly or bemused. In the three-story building on the southwest corner, a place called Vesuvio lived seven years, back when Artie Bucco of The Sopranos ran a fictional restaurant of the same name.
I didn’t know the Vesuvio of the early years, when it was supposedly a respectable white-tablecloth restaurant serving quail stuffed with boar sausage and black-truffle-glazed steaks. I knew the Vesuvio of the bleary twilight, when it had devolved into a weird watering hole whose claim to fame was a cheesesteak BLT lauded by The Today Show. Its three stucco-frosted stories formed a poison layer cake, a waste of restaurant space smack in the middle of Bella Vista. Hope sprung when Vesuvio became Little Bar — and fizzled when that closed in less than a year amid rumors of funny business and skeevy machismo.
Enter Jason Evenchik, whom you know from Midtown Village’s Vintage and Time, and Starr vet Jay Willard. In October, the buddies took Bella Vista’s giant hospital-green elephant and turned it into a neighborhood “bar, kitchen and living room” called Growlers. They’ve got the living-room vibe down, with leather armchairs fronting a roaring fireplace, a familial front-of-house staff and a snug carved-wood bar tucked under the stairs. A larger bar guards Growlers’ front, a fountain of dry ciders and vanilla stouts, holiday ales and hop monsters advertised on chalkboards; it hides the living-room-inspired dining room behind its worn brick back, lending the latter a cozy, private feel that’s as irresistible on an icy night as a gingerbread-spiced Sly Fox Christmas Ale.
Surveying the scene, I sipped the garnet-red beer and picked at well-salted housemade potato chips as thin and translucent as panes of amber glass. A baby gurgled in a stroller by the fireplace. A famished senior gurgled over pulled-pork mac ’n’ cheese. The two bookended the Growlers age spectrum, every living generation between represented in the clientele sprinkled about the tables. From Lucky Peach apostles to Hidden Valley inhabitants, dressed-down attorneys to dressed-up crossing guards, Growlers gets them all, a mark of a healthy, interesting neighborhood gathering place, one this address has longed for. As for the food, it’s on the right track (generous, affordable and fun), but still needs refining.
Chives floated on the surface of the chips’ provolone, pecorino and fontina fondue, a dip possessing the consistency of latex paint and flavor reminiscent of snack-hut cheese fries at a suburban swimming pool. Chef Jerry Donohue, who spent the last few years on the country-club circuit, is new to the city — he just celebrated three weeks in his new place, less than a mile from Growlers — and a well of fine, fun ideas, but his execution could be cleaned up a bit. I love his ballsiness in serving a plate of bacon as a bar snack — we eat it by the slice at breakfast, so why not dinner? — but he cooks it like my dad, which is to say until crunchy and rigid as a bundle of rulers. Most of the bacon still got a passing grade, especially when spread with the accompanying tarragon-greened bacon dip (a really wonderful flavor pairing), but a few burned strips disintegrated into acrid gunpowder in the mouth, not enough to spoil the whole bunch but worth avoiding nonetheless.
Mussels made a splash in a lager broth. Slowly cooked caramelized leeks draped about the shells like tangled boas, adding sweetness to the bitter-edged broth accented with points of chorizo. Four different sauces slather the by-the-pound wings, or you can get them dry rubbed in tandoori spices and baked in the oven, a healthier alternative that lacked the crispness of its deep-fried mates. I did love the convenient, crunchy carrot-and-celery slaw tossed in blue cheese dressing, just next time I’ll enjoy it alongside the Mongolian or Jameson BBQ styles.
Housemade cubes of soft-pretzel “stuffing” weren’t so much stuffed inside the Philly chicken as tucked beneath it. Sharp whole-grain mustard veloute and crea-my cheddar-Yards sauce enrobed the locally themed, pan-roasted bird in a flow of yellow silk, ano-ther clever idea, one that might be better recast as a sandwich on pretzel bread — minus the underdone Brussels sprouts. Then there were the medallions of chuck flap with springy nutmeg-scented spaetzel and sautéed mushrooms and onions, which was great except that I’d ordered short ribs. Donahue says boneless short ribs are cut from the flap, but their pot-roast-like look and texture were so different from the succulent, glazed, fatty idea of a bone-in short rib, it felt like the menu was telling a fib.
Bread pudding built for two trembled en route to the table, fissures and faults cracking its laughably massive bulk of brioche, mashed bananas and so many molten chocolate chips the entire dessert looked black as devil’s food. It was a hot mess, but a delicious one. Just-baked cookies (also giant) were topographical maps of crushed-cashew ridges, caramel valley and more chocolate-chip hills. Cookies in the living room? Count a brother in.
GROWLERS | 736 S. Eighth St., 267-519-3242, growlersbar.com. Open daily, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; kitchen Mon.-Sat., 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.-1 a.m. Snacks and appetizers, $4-$10; entrees, $7-$19; desserts, $5.