Tender Bar + Kitchen: A stunning bar with terrific cocktails

But be patient while this new Lawrenceville treasure finds its footing


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Late on a Monday, a wide window facing Lawrenceville's Butler Street opens to a balmy night at Tender Kitchen + Bar.

"Oh just a night like this/Filled with bliss/You led my heart astray," sings a 1930s siren from a playlist. The melancholy "Little White Lies" segues to Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" as bartender Nathan Lutchansky works at the far end of the bar. His highball glass at the ready, he rocks a shaker on a diagonal before straining the contents for an Old Bond Street Fizz ($12).


Tender Bar + Kitchen

Food:


1 1/2 stars = Satisfactory+
Ratings explained


Service:


2 stars = Recommended
Ratings explained


Atmosphere:


4 stars = Outstanding
Ratings explained


Overall:


2 stars = Recommended
Ratings explained


4300 Butler St.
Lawrenceville
412-402-9522
tenderpgh.com

  • Hours:

    Monday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Late-night menu begins at 10 p.m. Kitchen closes at midnight.

  • Basics:

    A beautiful dining room and compelling drinks steal the show, while food offers a few gems and some misses.

  • Recommended dishes:

    Smelts, deviled eggs, mixed greens, potato chips, city chicken, beignets, banana split.

  • Prices:

    Cocktails $10-$15; entrees $7-$12; sides $5; desserts $6.

  • Summary:

    Credit cards, wheelchair accessible, corkage $15.

  • Noise level:

    Quiet to moderately loud.


In the glass, gin and bourbon commingle with lavender and the iridescent Creme de Violette for a faint taste of soap and spring. Egg whites dress with a lacy froth. Garnished with nutmeg, the cocktail named for the tony London Street is served with a straw.

Listed as "refreshing and light," it's one of 15 originals on a menu that includes drinks "stiff and spirit forward," and "on the sweeter side." Centered among descriptions lie the credits: Bartenders who have carved reputations as specialists elsewhere before owner Jeff Catalina plucked them for his ambitious concept.

In addition to Mr. Lutchansky, former beverage director at Verde, bartenders include Sean Rosenkrans, formerly at Silk Elephant in Squirrel Hill; Craig Mrusek, tiki drink aficionado; Marie Perriello of Stir Society; Sarah Clarke, formerly at Verde; and Frederick Arnold, who moved to Pittsburgh from Kansas City's now-closed R Bar.

Tender Bar + Kitchen is as it reads: A bar first, a restaurant second. It opened in late March to fanfare. The 19th-century Arsenal Bank that hulked the corner of 43rd Street had been neglected for decades, an eyesore rehabbed by the restaurateur behind Verde Mexican Kitchen & Cantina in Garfield. Mr. Catalina's past life had been as a management consultant before he segued into the finicky restaurant industry in 2011.

Verde may be stylish, but Tender is a stunner.

Gold teardrops ride wallpaper to a vaulted ceiling. A corner wears a collage of found checks from the 1890s. Stately reading lamps line a marble bar, encouraging patrons to lean in and pair off.

Behind Mr. Lutchansky, a library of shelves scroll, some so high it requires a wheeled ladder to reach bottles.

The options are dizzying among several kinds of Chartreuse, a fleet of Amari, a cacophony of gins along with whiskey, rum and bourbon. Vermouth tucks among shelves while bitters stand like chess pawns in a row.

It's a bit troubling that the Banker's List of 30 classic cocktails hangs in a corner of the menu, a wallflower of faint type. They are timeless for a reason. That they're marginalized here doesn't fit the theme.

Don't be shy to order the wallflowered classics, including the iconic Blood & Sand, a Vieux Carre and the Sazarac. Since 2008, they have been making a comeback with the revival of pre-Prohibition bible, Jerry Thomas' "Bartender's Guide to How to Mix Drinks." Having fallen out of print, the book published in 1862 has been revived by cocktail geeks around the world who have embraced instruction from this and other vintage books that dictate attire, rules and bartender behavior.

Tender takes the latter seriously, including the no standing dictum at the bar.

In the dining room, well-mannered men in vests and pressed shirts greet guests in hushed tones. Beautiful women in fishnet thigh-highs and flapper-era black dresses glide from bar to table with comely cocktails.

The experience is both charming and an overreach. Like a family party or a wedding, everyone's on best behavior, maybe even a little self-conscious.

While staff grows comfortable and cocktails are better with each visit, patrons still aren't sure whether it's OK to loosen a tie or kick off heels under the table.

That's not to say there's a dress code here. Slinky dresses are as oft-seen as ripped shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops. The nice thing is, an attentive staff does not discriminate.

At Tender, there's soul but not yet a center. The restaurant's ambition combined with Pittsburgh's fair-mindedness muddle the message.

Take the bartender fleet of six, a crew known for different styles and tastes. The concept requires literacy -- with booze, cocktails and the backstory of the bar. Without it, something is lost in translation.

Which bartenders know what booze? Why are there two aromatics in a featured cocktail? It's overwhelming enough to prompt a guest to defect to a standard beer and a shot.

The food offerings are also disjointed, as every corner of the country earns a place on the menu among small plates.

Take the Northeast section. A fluffernutter sandwich ($7, Somerville, Mass.) of marshmallow, peanut butter and banana jam resides among the gorgeous potato salad with a dill vinaigrette, mandolined rounds that present like stacked stones.

Muscular fried smelts ($7, Lewiston, N.Y.) battered in beer are both humble and elevated, a fishy fish dressed up as delicious. Beef on weck ($10, Buffalo, N.Y.) wears a bun that's on point, yet the meat inside lies desiccated and gray.

Oh, the lobster roll. Woe to the restaurant that dares to serve a sandwich that inspires such loyalty and reverence. Packed with chunks of bright knuckle and claw, a toasted bun should wear a sheen of mayo, lemon and celery for crunch: warm butter if it's Connecticut-style. Here, it's a dainty bun trio with a smattering of meat. These rolls ($14, Bar Harbor, Maine) get no respect.

The West makes a table wince. A trio of $10 oysters (Pacific Northwest) have been pre-shucked, each oyster raisin-dry. Hawaiian tuna poke is coated in aioli the color of the bed of rice it's served on, minus bold flavors of chili, green onions, soy, sesame and ginger.

From the South, head-on shrimp and grits ($12, Charleston, S.C.) are pretty, bland mounds, while hush puppies ($6, Mississippi) are fine fuel for drinking.

Stick with Americana, lovely deviled eggs on Sriracha ($5), addictive potato chips ($5) fried in tallow or decadent mac and cheese made with a blend of domestic cheeses.

A mixed green salad ($7) with ingredients from Penn's Corner Farm Alliance is refreshing and crisp, served with grilled ramps, edible flowers, feta, black radishes and finishing salt. City chicken ($10) pleased locals, a stick of battered pork on a dollop of mashed potatoes.

Save room for desserts. Warm beignets ($6) are worth wearing the trail of powdered sugar. And a banana split ($6) tempts with quenelles of housemade vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, sliced bananas. and pools of chocolate and peanut butter sauce. It's hard to imagine the split as a dressed-up dessert, but there it is.

Despite missteps, Tender Bar + Kitchen is worth one visit or many. There are gems among the cocktails, food and staff. It deserves support and patience as it finds footing. It's also a reminder that an excellent staff and an elegant room can make for a fun place to drink.

restaurantreviews

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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