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Munch usually associates eating near the Waterfront with places like P.F. Chang's, where a giant (and slightly ridiculous) horse statue lords over the entrance and where the corporate fare comes overpriced and mediocre. At Tin Front Cafe, the restaurant that opened adjacent to the kitchen store The Annex, the statuary is -- shall we say -- slightly less ostentatious.
The facade of both The Annex and Tin Front Cafe are understated, so much so that Munch and Cheating Pescatarian Friend of Munch (cheating, because sometimes she's a chicken-atarian) briefly had trouble locating it among the dusty storefronts on Eighth Avenue. At Tin Front, there's a lizard-like tin monster that adorns the marquee. In its back patio, a giant tin chicken statue stands guard.
Tin Front, which opened near the beginning of this year, is not exactly walking distance from the big-box venues in the Waterfront (though Munch dares you to try and hoof it from Target to Panera without getting run over by an SUV). But the next time Munch picks up discount tchotchkes at Marshalls, it's where Munch will be grubbing.
Now Munch is a devout meat-atarian. Crocodile, veal, lamb, goat, water buffalo ... Munch has tried them all. Munch generally avoids joints that label themselves vegetarian, so Munch felt duped -- nay deceived -- when Munch learned that the cafe's award-winning chili was vegetarian. In fact, there was not a speck of meat, nary a millimeter-thin slice of prosciutto, to be found on the menu.
But Munch admits -- somewhat grudgingly -- that the meal was delicious and more surprising, wholly satisfying.
The inside of the cafe has a slightly rustic feel, cozy like a classic American diner, but flooded with light with the help of a couple of skylights. And there's a bar that serves up Pennsylvania microbrews and wine by the bottle and glass. In a nod to Europe, the bar has both coffee and alcoholic libations.
Munch and CPFOM were dazzled by the variety of dishes on the cafe's one-page menu, but eventually settled on the crostini with brie, apple and spiced walnuts ($7.95). The crostini was toasted to perfection -- still chewy in the center -- and the combination of flavors was perfect, with the richness of the brie cut by the tartness of the apple.
CPFOM ordered the Four Bean Chili ($3.95), which came in a small cup topped generously with cheese, sour cream and a little cilantro. Munch admits -- again grudgingly -- that it's the best chili Munch has had in a long time. It was spicy and unexpectedly sweet and unlike other vegetarian chilis, it was full-flavored, not thin.
CPFOM followed up with a Spinach Salad with Pears, Gorgonzola and Spiced Walnuts ($7.95), which was a nice balance of flavors. Munch somewhat skeptically ordered the Butternut Squash Lasagna with Basil Bechamel Sauce ($9.95). Again, no meat? Not even a little? But it was delicious, drawing on the creamy sweetness of pureed squash to give it its richness. And though it was rich, it also didn't feel unhealthy. With summer coming and the possibility of Munch bearing the waistline at the beach, this is certainly not a bad thing.
Basically, some aspects of Tin Front can feel a little like a contradiction, but in the end it's the best of both worlds. The bar food is vegetarian. It's got comfort food but not the kind that will put you in cardiac arrest. It's got microbrews for celebrating and delicious coffee for the night after celebrating. It's got the comforting ambiance of a greasy spoon, "but [the food] doesn't taste bad," quipped CPFOM, and there's free Wi-Fi! And, it's got cool statues ... but it's not P.F. Chang's.