We are doomed, eventually, to have every down-home, cheap treasure turned into an item of luxury. Thrift-store T-shirts have been co-opted by fancy clothing companies, made to look old, and are sold for $40 in expensive boutiques. Soul food is now sold as "soul food tapas" in upscale lounges. Bars in New York City wankishly sell cans of PBR for $5, aiming to cash in on the blue-collar cred every hipster needs.
In the U.K., the neighborhood pub is a centuries-old institution, and there is hardly a better symbol for working-class populism. Pubs are an extension of people's homes, where beer, food and conversation flow easily and at a low cost. In recent years England has seen the rise of the gastropub, a pub that has put on gourmet airs. A co-worker recently told me of some friends who live in London who constantly bemoan the proliferation of the gastropub, complaining that so many of the reliable, old-fashioned corner pubs in the city are being turned into temples of pretension.
It isn't surprising that Atlanta, a town crazed about crazes, would soon see a few gastropubs. It also isn't surprising that Bob Amick and Concentrics Restaurants group are the folks to bring it here. If there's one thing Amick is consistently good at, it's deciding what The Next Big Thing in restaurants will be and selling the public on his decision. Tap is the first gastropub in Atlanta, but it's not the last. There are already plans for one to open across the way from Restaurant Eugene in Buckhead this fall.
The most exciting thing about this new trend is not the "gastro" but the "pub." Pub food is ultimately comfort food, but comfort food specifically geared toward its compatibility with drinking beer. Tap's chef, Todd Ginsburg, who has an impressive résumé including a stint at Alain Ducasse in New York, was apparently dragged around London by Amick to get a sense of what the pioneers of the gastropub are doing. There are items on Tap's menu that channel the heavy, simple, satisfying food aesthetic that characterizes the best pub food. An appetizer of mushroom caps over braised beef is hearty, meaty and rich with dark flavor, the ideal foil to a chilly evening and a glass of malt and hops. This dish will be splendid in the fall. The roasted scallops entree over a cute ABCs and 123s minestrone is also perfect warm comfort, with large spoonfuls of greens and fresh vegetables.
Speaking of cute, Tap's design elements are a delight. The space itself is a tad cold, with red banquettes and high ceilings in what never stops feeling like the bottom few floors of an office building. The bar has an impressive glass floating keg vestibule overhead to house the beers on tap, and the patio overlooking Peachtree Street is a nice addition to a Midtown that sometimes feels devoid of a street life. But the real aesthetic triumph here comes with the details. It's hard not to be charmed by a menu with a design this cute: a small folder/clipboard fronted by a chart detailing the flavor spectrum of the human tongue, and finishing with a note directing your attention back to your dining companions. The menus apparently cost $25 each to produce. Equally charming is the cylindrical box of matches, with small print that reads, "Contents to create fire inside. Use said fire wisely." This is a new standard for attention to detail.
It's a pity the same attention hasn't been given to staffing the place. Service ranges from spacey and overly friendly to harried and out of control. What servers don't lack is enthusiasm; knowledge is another matter.
Enthusiasm for the food is usually well-justified. Bar food undergoes a lovable incestuous fusion in the buffalo calamari with Irish Cashel blue cheese and celery, making for a crunchy, spicy, tangy snack perfectly suited to casual eating and drinking. The beef tartar, which arrives in a little pot, brims with raw beef spiked with just enough shallots and condiments to make it an addictive snack. Toast with chocolate and chorizo is a melding of spicy and sweet and is as successful as any toast-chocolate-savory snack we're seeing so much of these days (what's up with that?).
There are disappointments. The pork dumplings had a uniform mushiness, and a creamy filling that was reminiscent of cream-of-lunchmeat soup. But there are also moments when it's possible to see Ginsburg's potential to shine. The corn ravioli that appears under a large pork chop is a testament to summer, and the delicate pasta sings a sweetly yielding song.
The chocolate pudding on the dessert menu is more of a pot de crème, or as one server described it, "a bowl full of ganache." Here's a place where the Anglification could have exerted more influence – why not a British-style pudding, hot and cakey? But stout ice cream with oatmeal cookies saved the day. Much more so than the bread ice cream or the (dry) soaked brown-sugar cake.
The beer list features interesting domestics and a couple of solid, high-gravity Belgian options. Chimay on tap is always a nice touch. A restaurant named for the instrument that dispenses beer could have a slightly more ambitious list, but the 40 or so choices (21 on tap) are well-chosen.
Crowds are currently flocking to the patio, particularly on evenings later in the week, and it's quite a scene. In this, as well as many other respects, Tap is about as far as you can get from the well-worn corner pub. It's about as conceptual as a restaurant gets, but like much of what Amick and Concentrics do, it's a concept that's well-executed and delivered with assurance. Cheers.