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Coda | Dining Out

A big step up from the dive bar

Coda's name is a reference to the intersection nearest the bar/restaurant: It's by the corner of Columbus and Dartmouth, in the space once occupied by Tim's Tavern. Its name is not meant to refer to the musical coda, a passage that both prolongs and concludes a movement. Still, this new hangout does extend the legacy of Tim's, which was celebrated most often for its fantastic burger (Coda's is pretty good, too) but also for being a remnant of the "old" South End, before things went and got all fancy. Tim's was the kind of place where everyone felt welcome, and thus everyone went. (Cue "Cheers" theme song here.) On a recent night at Coda, dressy post-work lushes socialize cheek to jowl with a school wrestling team, and people of all ages and types come and go. But things have changed, too; the space has been spiffed up with paint and a black stone bar top, squishy booths and works by local artists on the walls. So maybe Coda also marks an end: There will be no new dive bars opening in the South End any time soon.

Places like Coda are a fine consolation prize for the loss of sticky floors. The food here is good; the drinks are unstinting; and the service is friendly. The place is full of happy bar noise, with the game providing the backbone to the soundtrack. There is, of course, the requisite flat-screen TV. In short, it's a lot like a good dive bar, but with slightly nicer seating and lamb on the menu.

That lamb, described as being a 6-ounce steak, looks much bigger. It's rosy and juicy in the middle, its barnyard flavor tempered by horseradish sauce. The accompanying potato pancake also looks much bigger than 6 ounces: It's a Frisbee. Coda doesn't do small portions. An appetizer or a salad could serve as dinner for someone who's not too hungry, and entrees are likely to also become tomorrow's lunch. Those take-home tins are heavy. You could do bicep curls with the mashed potatoes alone.

Turkey and portobello meatloaf is another hefty serving. How much you like it may depend on your tolerance of having foreign objects embedded in your loaf; the mushrooms bring chew to the otherwise yielding bites of ground meat. The onion marmalade it's served with sweetens the deal and bumps up the richness. It doesn't quite reach the deliciousness level of the turkey meatloaf with fig gravy found at the Franklin Cafe a few blocks south, but when the Franklin is too crowded, too loud, too crazy (as in, most nights), Coda will sate your meatloaf fix. In fact, Coda is very much like a baby Franklin, with its well-presented comfort food served till midnight (as opposed to Franklin's 1:30 a.m.) and its cheerfully eclectic wine list. If it's not as crowded, as loud, or as crazy, that may be temporary.

Because here you can get a sinful arugula salad studded with crispy, salty chunks of pork, the once calorically benign leaves now slicked with Stilton and pine nut dressing. "I'll eat salad all the time if it tastes like this," says one ordinarily salad-resistant diner. You can get duck confit that is actually more braised than confited, served with bean cassoulet that is actually just beans; whatever you want to call it, it's tasty, particularly the tender beans. And you can get a platter piled high with ultra-tender fried calamari in a pale golden batter. They're tossed with chopped-up banana peppers of a similar color, so the zingy bites come as a surprise. (Unless you actively root around for them when no one is looking.) According to the menu, the calamari are served over mesclun greens. I don't remember said greens, either because we weren't able to eat far enough down into the pile or because I sampled Coda's specialty drinks. They're strong, and on the sweet side, but the bartenders are open to tinkering. They swap out gin for vodka in a basil gimlet martini, and the substitution of an expensive vodka does nothing to up the price: $7.

Tack on $9 and you've got yourself a burger, too. It's 10 ounces (or 2 1/2 Quarter Pounders) of black Angus, so proceed with caution. If you should choose to accept this mission, note that asking to have blue cheese slathered on top is not as good an idea as it seems. The stinky cheese overwhelms the flavor of the beef. It will not, however, affect your enjoyment of the excellent, crispy, incredibly salty shoestring fries.

But perhaps the best measure of a kitchen dishing out comfort food is its mac and cheese. Coda nails it - it's not too dry, not too gooey, with the perfect amount of cheese. More of those crispy, salty lardons and some peas are buried among the noodles, breaking up the mushiness.

There are only two major complaints here, and one will soon be irrelevant: Even when it's hot outside, it's winter on Coda's menu. Meatloaf and mashed potatoes aren't necessarily what you want to eat when it's 90 degrees out. That turkey meatloaf at the Franklin disappears during the hot months. The other complaint is dessert. There are usually two, and they're dull imports from other kitchens, or possibly the freezer aisle. One night the shells on a pair of cannoli are almost too hard to break through, yet also somehow soggy. They're terrible. Perhaps Coda should take another cue from its older sibling the Franklin and just not serve dessert at all.

Otherwise, Coda has a solid formula: strong cocktails, huge portions of food, good burgers, friends and neighbors, all adding up to a low price tag at the end. The new South End and the old South End don't always look that different.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe. com

Coda ** (Two stars)

329 Columbus Ave., Boston. 617-536-2632.
Major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $6-$10. Entrees $9-$20.

Hours Daily: lunch 11:30 a.m. - 4 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.-12 a.m.

Noise Level Loud at prime time.

May we suggest
Appetizers Fried calamari; baby arugula, Stilton, and crispy lardons salad.
Entrees Black Angus burger, mac and cheese.

Ratings reflect the restaurant critic's judgment of the food, service, and atmosphere in relation to the price, based on several anonymous visits.

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