- Chicken Caprese with balsamic reduction
Location: 245 Fourth Ave., Downtown. 412-281-4345. www.tavern245.com
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat. noon-10 p.m.
Fare: Upscale pub grub
Atmosphere: Casual swank
Liquor: Full bar
Downtown Pittsburgh is thriving. How can we tell? The action is spreading. No longer is the Cultural District the only sector of the Golden Triangle to be lit up at night. With more and more people actually living downtown, including plenty of social-scene-seeking college students on and around the Boulevard of the Allies, we see it becoming a full-fledged neighborhood, one with noteworthy establishments on almost every block.
Of course, some blocks are still more lively than others. One which suffers from the deadening effect of a huge parking garage is Fourth Avenue between PPG Place and Wood Street. Across from all that concrete and car storage, amid the Gilded Age towers, a handsome little 1950s building sat vacant for years, waiting for someone to capitalize on its charms. Recently, chef Jay Lewis, late of Palomino, joined with general manager Chip Hamilton to turn that little mid-century gem into a restaurant and bar called Tavern 245.
The word "tavern," with its old-fashioned connotations of dark wood paneling and beer spills on the bar, could be misleading. This casually swank, two-level establishment is definitely not targeted at the college crowd, unless it's a couple of over-21s splurging on a date. We hustled past the smoking-permitted bar on the first floor to the dining room upstairs, which was large and deep but well lit by the bank of ribbon windows across the front. Up here was another large bar, with a couple of pocket lounges, high-top bar seating and a small sea of tables toward the back. A green-stained concrete floor played off panels of rich wall color, which helped to differentiate the wide-open space. The design was contemporary and well executed to mute the potentially cavernous feel of the big, undivided room.
The "tavern" concept applied more readily to the menu. The food was decidedly not haute: burgers, nachos, wings. But a closer look revealed much more ambition than typical bar-and-grill fare. For instance, "The Farm" featured sliders several steps above the usual overdone mini-burgers on mediocre buns. Tavern 245 served three made with, respectively, chicken, pulled pork and fillet. That's right, fillet: a tiny steak on a roll, and the roll was a potato knot from Breadworks, an inspired choice that added character and flavor while being perfectly sized. The steak was perfectly tender and medium rare, well matched with sweet roasted red pepper and tangy goat cheese. The pulled pork was well seasoned and lightly slathered with a house-made barbecue sauce that was a bit sweet for our tastes. The chicken impressed us with the thinness of the slice of breast; any thicker, and the proportion of meat to roll would have been lost. It was also well-seared for flavor, but slightly dry. Toppings of bacon and house-made ranch dressing helped compensate for this, while tiny fried onion rings added crispy texture. We questioned only the choice of American cheese. Cheddar is no more exotic, and so much better.
American and cheddar cheeses were layered between slices of sourdough bread on a grilled cheese sandwich. Though billed as an "updated" grilled cheese, we did not notice anything new about it. That's OK, though. Grilled cheese never goes out of style, and Tavern's version is classic.
We also had a full-sized burger, the Tavern Hamburguesa, accented with Mexican flavors: house-made guacamole and chipotle mayo on the burger, pico de gallo on the side. The patty itself was broad, beefy and tender, while the toppings -- including the standard lettuce and tomato, here upgraded to romaine and Roma varieties -- added plenty of bright, fresh flavor. Tavern 245's guacamole is especially notable: unabashedly chunky and, with sour cream mixed in, extra creamy and tart. Eaten plain with Tavern's homemade tortilla chips, it makes a fine appetizer, too.
The best fried calamari are delicious alone; Tavern's benefited greatly from a dip in the delicious basil-garlic aioli. Likewise, the robust Yuengling beer-cheese sauce was the perfect complement to "Pittsburgh potatoes," or fries, seasoned with kosher salt. We found both the honey-Dijon and barbecue sauces too sweet.
We like to save our sweet tooth for dessert, especially when it's made in-house, as is the case here. The stand-out was strawberry shortcake, with a cake that had the texture of a cookie and the flavor of a biscuit. With fresh berries and whipped cream, it was a winning combination.
Tavern 245 fills a necessary niche Downtown: casual, pub-style food in a decidedly upscale, un-pub-like atmosphere. If the food tastes better this way, it's not just because of the lighting. It's because the kitchen prepares it with care.