Sidecar Bar & Grille
The old dude straightens the bolo tie around his rail-thin neck as he considers the waitress' question. He shifts his polished western boots and tugs at his trucker's cap as he surveys the scene at the Sidecar Bar & Grille.
The old Victor's Tavern, a shot-and-a-beer hall that occupied this South Philly corner for more than half a century, has gone gastro-pub. Sleek red lights and sidewalk seating. Fancy brews on tap. Frou-frou cocktails and calamari.
"Naw, I'm stickin' around," he says emphatically, and takes his seat at the bar beside a nose-ring princess on her cell phone and a fellow in Market Street pinstripes drinking Stella Artois.
And the Sidecar is poised at its nexus, a friendly outpost on the shifting urban frontier where the old and new guards have paused to mingle over grilled "toastie" sandwiches and waffles with ice cream.
"It's a beautiful thing to see," says my friend, Rob, who lives a block away. "But will it last?"
It's a complicated question. And the Sidecar - despite its bright intentions and promise - refuses to provide an easy verdict.
The mere fact of its existence is worth kudos, because a neighborhood turnaround is for real when a bar that was once a notorious drug market is suddenly hosting Quizzo nights and serving arugula salad with blood orange vinaigrette. Owners Jennifer and Adam Ritter, who found crack bags stashed beneath the bar-stool covers during their extensive renovations, should be commended for taking the brave plunge last year to improve their own neighborhood.
But Philadelphia is also gastro-pub heaven - many of them in emerging neighborhoods. And when compared with some of the best - N. 3rd, Standard Tap, the Royal Tavern, the New Wave, and Deuce - the seven-month-old Sidecar still has a long way to grow.
The beer list is a serious upgrade over the six-packs of Old Milwaukee that Victor's fixtures used to nurse all day over ice. There are Belgians by the bottle and a handful of local micros on draft, but still too many tap handles of mass-market brew to qualify the Sidecar as a beer destination.
The single TV is too tiny for neighborhood sports fans like Rob to consider it a serious option for watching the game. And while there are live weekend music and occasional DJs, the Sidecar's iPod has also let slip a few ill-advised tunes (Celine Dion?!) that should not be permitted in a self-respecting pub.
All of these nits could be easily forgiven if the Sidecar's kitchen were cooking with more oomph. But after half a year, it is still struggling too much to bring the menu's appealing ideas to their potential.
The best items have been the "toasties," which are essentially panini filled with everything from grilled chicken and pistachio pesto to chorizo and provolone. The ancho-rubbed grilled hanger steak was another winner, as were the little bruschetta toasts topped with chiplike slivers of filet mignon and balsamic onions.
The fried calamari streaked with balsamic glaze could have been more generous, but were tender enough. And the arugula salad isn't bad, either: a mound of fresh greens and olives tossed with shaved parmesan and a tart blood orange vinaigrette.
But whenever a dish called for some actual cooking skill, the results were uninspired. There were two intriguing fish dishes, but the baked cod "basquaise" was drowned in a watery ragout of potatoes and peppers, and the Trench Town tilapia, sided with fried plantains and snap peas, was baked to a chewy brown.
The homemade falafel balls were dense and sticky inside, with an off tang. A take on fried chicken and waffles could have been fine had someone bothered to season the chicken. Even the standard pub fare needed some extra finesse. The chili is homemade, but totally lacking zip. The sloppy reuben was all sauerkraut and not enough corned beef.
More serious, I couldn't tell the difference between the Sidecar's burger and a pre-frozen Bubba. This was a violation of Rule Number One in the gastro-pub covenant - that the house burger must kick butt.
But I was encouraged to learn that Adam Ritter had independently come to the same conclusion. After a series of kitchen changes that left him in charge of the stoves during my visits, he had recently hired a new chef from the Good Dog on 15th Street, whose Roquefort-stuffed burger is one of the city's seminal bar food achievements.
Fresh handmade burgers, Ritter said, were already in the plans. So the Sidecar's story is far from done. But when I do eventually return, will it have evolved from its role as pioneer to its full potential as destination pub? And when that happens, will the Cowboy still be there?
One can only hope for G-Ho.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.