The gentrification of Lawrenceville is an interesting phenomenon. As the neighborhood takes on a cachet it never had in its historical heyday, sometimes it isn't clear if it is going back to the future or forward to the past.
Take Tender Bar + Kitchen, which bills itself an "American cocktail lounge and restaurant that celebrates a return to the elegant simplicity of a past era." While Lawrenceville's past as a working-class mill neighborhood was probably neither elegant nor simple, both of these qualities apply to the establishment's trendy one-word name, with its double entendre evoking both its food and the building's original incarnation as the 1884 Arsenal Bank. Elegant, too, are the building's 14-foot ceilings, red and gold Art Nouveau wallpaper, marble wainscoting and six historic safes.
Jeff Catalina, the restaurateur behind Garfield's Verde Mexican Kitchen and Cantina, excavated the building's historic charms while updating it in a style that spans contemporary chic and archaeological curation. A back dining room features overstuffed leather couches and paneling decoupaged with old-fashioned sheet music, while an intimate basement room would make a dreamy spot for a celebration.
At its long bar, Tender embraces modern craft-cocktail culture, with house-infused liquors, fresh fruits and herbs, and unique creations as well as new versions of classics. The conspicuous absence of television, and music that's played just loud enough, are also Prohibition-era charms.
Of course, man does not live by cocktails alone. Tender's so-called "scratch kitchen" is committed to the ethos of organic, sustainable, fresh and local. But while ingredients may be sourced from nearby farms, the recipes are selected to evoke classics and comfort foods from regions near and far. Many menu items are listed with their geographic origins, and while seeing a humble fluffernutter sandwich made with brioche and banana jam (and attributed to Somerville, Mass.) struck us as a little precious, the results showed competence and creativity.
Tender is first and foremost a bar, and though there was blessedly little bar food in the sense of greasy and deep-fried things, even the ostensibly substantial items between the "Small Investments" and "Closing Bell" sections were mainly finger foods and/or plates seemingly intended for sharing. We started with some snacks: potato chips and popcorn. The former were paper-thin, wonderfully brittle and dark enough to provide substantial flavor, with sweet tomato aioli standing in deliciously for ketchup. Tender's popcorn is prepared with daily seasoning; on ours we detected hot chili, possibly sweet paprika, and a lot of salt.
A platter of oysters from the Northwest featured three small but deep shells, accompanied by house hot sauce. The morsels were firmer than many East Coast oysters, and their brine was mild and balanced. The seafood in the miniature lobster rolls was firm and sweet, the dill dressing simple, and the rolls toasty and buttery. At $14 for three, they're not cheap, but a worthy indulgence. Deviled eggs were also superb, with yolks smooth as whipped cream.
Hot chicken was boneless chunks of moist white meat, fried in a thick coating of assertively spicy batter and served with triangles of white bread and pickles — as is apparently the custom in Nashville, Tenn. The pickles were more like marinated cucumber slices than what you'd find in a jar, resulting in crisp texture and bright flavor. Dollops of mayo offered further relief from the heat.
A cheddar cheeseburger in a soft-pretzel-like sesame bun, dressed with several luscious toppings — house-cured bacon, heirloom tomato, garlic-scape pesto and an unannounced but welcome fried egg — was as good as it gets, the patty offering exceptional beef flavor.
Yaka mein, a Chinese noodle soup via New Orleans, was the one fork-and-knife (or in this case, spoon) dish we ordered. A nest of flat, chewy noodles was served with a colorful garden of lightly cooked and pickled vegetables, half a boiled egg and fine threads of chili in a deep, dark soy broth that seemed to define the notion of "umami."
For dessert, lemon cake was light in both flavor and texture, enhanced by pistachio crumble and strawberry purée. "Spilled" apple pie featured a filling ladled atop a puff of modified pie crust alongside a miniature scoop of ice cream atop a candied basil leaf.
For all its self-conscious bank puns and high-concept comfort food, Tender somehow just evades pretentiousness to offer a highly appealing marriage of Lawrenceville past and present.