by Len Lear
For a new restaurant that I’ll bet no one reading this article has heard of, the Red Owl Tavern is buzzing more than a swarm of bees. During our midweek visit on the coldest night of the year (12 degrees) late last month, the first floor dining room was mostly full, and the bar was hopping with fashionably dressed patricians who looked like the glitterati in People magazine. Skin-tight dresses and perfectly coiffed hairstyles were the order of the day among the beau monde.
Red Owl Tavern, an American brasserie, opened last October on the first two floors of the glamorific new Hotel Monaco in the former Lafayette Building on the northeast corner of 5th and Chestnut Streets, just the length of a few Continental wigs from Independence Hall. The prime-location, 11-story building had been vacant for 20 years.
The name Red Owl Tavern, by the way, has no real significance. We were told that “it just seemed like a nice name.” Red Owl, which can seat 150, is the first restaurant along Independence Mall in the modern era.
“Hotel restaurants always get a bad rap,” said Guillermo Tellez, executive chef at the hotel who also runs the culinary operations at the Hotel Palomar, 17th and Sansom Streets, and its restaurant, Square 1682. Both properties are owned by the Kimpton Hotel chain. “Lousy food, lousy service. Not this place. We run the restaurants independently. We don’t have a chain in front of us or anyone to answer to.”
You might think that Red Owl Tavern would be populated mostly by tourists because of its proximity to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Constitution Center, et al, but Tellez insists that is not the case. “Most of our customers are local residents,” he said. “Tourists usually want fast service and low prices … but we are pleased. We did not expect to be this busy so soon.”
Despite the fact that Hotel Monaco is really soigné, Red Owl Tavern is anything but baronial. It has an airy industrial mien with huge hanging lamps connected to a pulley system, steel girders, reclaimed brick and rustic barn siding, loft windows and a revolving front door.
Comfort food — and particularly beef — is the Holy Grail at Red Owl, fitting in harmoniously with the bucolic surroundings. Red Owl has an in-house butcher and lots of meat dishes like charcuterie ($13), marrow bones ($9), house-made sausage of the day ($11), burgers with bacon and cheddar cheese ($15), slow-roasted chicken with smoked bacon and barbecue sauce ($16), pork confit and pasta ($16) and four steak entrees, all slow-braised for hours, at $21 and under, which is a bargain considering that center city steak houses can easily charge twice as much.
Accompanying a top sirloin filet ($24) is a preserved onion sauce that adds an earthy but subtle spark to the filet, which is swathed in the richness of blue cheese butter. A tender butter blade steak ($19???) is velvety and moist, lightly perfumed by the parmesan aioli dipping sauce. It melts on the tongue like a cloud.
A side dish of kale ($7) is an addictive elixir with an intoxicating marriage of sherry vinegar, brown sugar, garlic and wheat berries. There is a bookcase full of huge jars of pickles, so it is hard not to order the refreshing pickled vegetable appetizer — Brussels sprouts, beets and green beans — with toasted bread and a smooth eggplant spread ($8).
House-made desserts — pumpkin spice “Whoopi” with pumpkin spiced cream ($7) and chocolate and peanut butter Whoopi pie with peanut butter cream ($9) both had too little cream (which was very good) and were way too doughy. Two wines I tried — Riesling Reinhartshausen ($11) and Hess Cabernet ($14) — were both decent but small pours for the price.
Believe it or not, all restaurants in the Kimpton Hotel chain, which includes Red Owl Tavern, have a wine steward (sommelier) whose real name is Emily Wines, who obviously was born to do just what she is doing, and Tellez has a line cook at Square 1682 whose last name is Cook.
Another attraction at Hotel Monaco is Stratus, a skylit rooftop boite on the 11th floor, both indoor and outdoor. Stratus features a bar, plush lounge seating, private enclosed spaces and vittles such as sliders, skewers, thin-crust pizzas and snacks to caress the cocktails.
Red Owl serves three meals a day. There is also a chef’s table in the basement and a wine cellar in a former bank vault. Parking is always an issue in center city, but Red Owl has valet parking for $15 with a stamped ticket, which is worth it on a 12-degree night.
At Red Owl Tavern there is just enough time between courses to foster an edge of anticipation but not impatience. There is a combination of sight and smell and taste that come together with persuasive power on a frigid winter night. When the weather permits, Red Owl will have six four-top tables outdoors, which should be a magnet for both locals and tourists.
More information at 215-923-2267 or www.redowltavern.com
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