The Tavern on the Square
2903 O’Donnell St.,  675-1880, facebook.com/tavernoncantonsquare
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It’s no revelation that taverns ain’t what they used to be. Those dark corner tappies in Fells Point and Canton, full of men who were served beer and a shot (and a sandwich, if they were lucky) and where youngsters were sent with a pail or a pitcher to bring home beer for fathers just off their shifts at Bethlehem Steel to drink on the stoop, have gone the way of Gunther’s and a plate of fried bologna and onions.
Today’s east side taverns clustered on Thames Street or in Canton Square offer both beer and food menus that would have positively flummoxed my steelworking dziadzia (grandfather)—well, except for the joints that serve pierogis. Indeed, even contemporary pub-crawlers might need a little time to absorb the breadth of offerings at the new Tavern on the Square, which opened in the former Fins space in early 2012 under the ownership of Blue Hill Tavern partners Mel Carter and Brett Lockard, with former Blue Hill sous chef Jeremy Thatcher manning the kitchen.
The Tavern on the Square’s two-page menu travels all over the globe, touching down in Latin America (torta gigante de puerco, fried guacamole with chips), Korea (barbecued beef brisket), Thailand (lettuce wraps), Cuba (shredded pork-belly panini), the Caribbean (jerk chicken salad), Italy (pizza, meatballs, pasta), and the American shore and heartland (fried oysters, wild boar chop). Ingredients such as venison make appearances as chili and sausage, pheasant is served in potpie and with waffles, and duck confit fills spring rolls and paninis as well as topping pizza. It’s enough to make a diner dizzy, and while a wide array of options can feed a wide range of eaters, the effect instead feels unfocused and robs the menu of a distinct character. The result comes off as generic rather than gastropub, and the execution of the dishes doesn’t help in contradicting that verdict. On a wildly busy midweek evening, nothing we ordered was ill-prepared or flawed, but little was exciting or particular either.
As is often the case, appetizers showed more flair than entrées. Sautéed wild mushrooms bound with Boursin cheese ($9) prove that simple ingredients well prepared can be a winner every time, while a sweet Korean barbecued beef brisket appetizer ($10) gains points for its lovely bed of puffy, fried polenta. Still, neither that beef brisket—far too sticky and missing the salty savoriness of bulgogi—nor the Thai lettuce wraps stuffed with peanut-braised chicken ($9) capture the core essence of either of those dishes.
The same flatness applies to other dishes as well, such as the pizza á la margherita ($9), which boasts decent tomatoes despite the off season but suffers from a lackluster crust. The wild boar burrito ($12) is more satisfying, though you may be pressed to identify the meat as boar rather than beef. Still, the dish tingles with a layered spiciness and is large enough to have some left over for lunch the next day when it will be a welcome treat.
Nightly specials at Tavern on the Square run from $12 steaks to half-price burgers and fish tacos to evenings of $8 pizzas and $10 pastas, making the restaurant’s already reasonable prices even more so. It’s certainly a deal for a good-sized portion of penne California ($14 regularly), an easy blend of fresh spinach and chunks of chicken and Andouille mixed with sun-dried tomatoes, which give the dish a much-needed brightness, and a creamy pesto sauce. The dish feels very late ’80s, but it also reminds you why combos like this were popular: They feel satisfying and require no thinking on a warm spring night.
Service at Tavern on the Square is perfunctory but polite. If there is dessert, no one offered any, but at the same time, no one rushes you either, and a rotation of servers regularly check in to take food and drink orders: Your glass will not sit empty for long. The dining room is basic, with pale mint walls and black trim, and decorated with your favorite Bodine prints. The front doors open wide to let in the air and give the music and general noise level room to dissipate and escape. Given the crowd at the long, long bar and at the sidewalk tables that skirt the square, a cocktail or a pint from one of Tavern on the Square’s half-dozen or so taps taken with friends and a nosh to soak it up just may be the restaurant’s real draw. It is, after all, a tavern.
Tavern on the Square is open seven days for lunch and dinner.