When it comes to dining, we're all about second chances, especially if the first impression was so unmemorable. If I happened to have a rather ho-hum lunch at Tavern in the Square in Central Square last year, big deal? A dry burger on a night when I really wanted a juicy one? Stop quibbling. Eventually, though, I quit frequenting the neighborhood haunt in favor of other spots near my house. A friend had the exact same complaints and stopped going, too.
So you see why more than a few eyes rolled when we decided to check out the new Tavern in the Square in Porter Square. First off, this new location is nearly a clone of the original - same owners, same menu, and just about the same size - yet somehow it feels wholly different. We'll chalk it up to the lighting, which seems a little brighter than in the Central Square spot, and a good round of trivia.
The spiral-bound menu, which prompted unfortunate comparisons to those of T.G.I. Friday's, needs some serious editing. It's the kind of place where there's just one too many pages of options, and where leftovers are a given. No one truly needs soups, salads, side dishes, pizzas, quesadillas, wings, "fries and skins," sandwiches, burgers, stuffed burgers, build-your-own burgers, - pant, pant - pastas, comfort food, burritos, and entrees. No one except a cafeteria, maybe. A word of advice: Keep it simple.
We ordered two appetizers and the firehouse chili that rang about two alarms. The Thai lettuce wraps came with enough tasty chicken filling to feed four people, but with only enough lettuce wraps for two. And the deep-fried Philly rolls were delicious, even if it reminded us of Philly cheesesteaks in an eggroll wrapper.
Unbeknownst to us, trivia (make that "Ivy League Trivia") was about to start by the time we polished off our appetizers. This is definitely a place whose communal vibe calls for a good round of trivia. And if you don't want to play, you can at least entertain yourself with the 12 (!) flat-screen TVs posted all around the restaurant. (Attention, Super Bowl revelers: There will be free wings during half-time next Sunday.)
We hadn't planned to play, but we couldn't resist when we came up with our team name: Ike Turner Overdrive. (What? Not a single laugh in the house when our name was called over the PA system?). The trivia host started with an easy one - "Which came first, Disney World or Disneyland?" (duh) - but then almost stumped us. "Who was nicknamed the wizard of Menlo Park?" *
A pitcher of "The Big Papi" prompted one of us to second-guess the Red Sox hitter's verility. After all, would David Ortiz really slurp down a sugary-sweet concoction of peach liqueur, peach puree, different rums, and pineapple and orange juices? We doubt it. Still, it was refreshing in a "classy scorpion bowl" kind of way, as our spitfire waitress put it.
In fact, we can't say enough about our waitress, whom we'll call Nyeri - because that was her name. In between zipping by with drinks and appetizers, she was quick to help us with trivia answers. (Extra points for those fabulous hoop earrings, Nyeri.)
By now, the entrees arrived, and already we were nearly full. The shepherd's pie - from the comfort section, of course - wasn't exactly comforting. A hefty pool of mashed potatoes and ground sirloin begged for some seasoning, and the whole table recoiled when grease filled a little pocket where someone had scooped out a bite. Needless to say, we got it to go, all five pounds of it. A fried fish sandwich was crispy and lighter than expected, and a burger stuffed with goat cheese and sundried tomato was as heavy as expected.
But if the menu is as cutting edge as the restaurant's '90s soundtrack (bonus trivia round: What was the name of Eagle-Eye Cherry's one and only hit, which played in between sips of "The Big Papi"? **), the atmosphere was at least entertaining. The bar area is attractive, and a back room is airy and perfect for Saturday night gatherings with friends.
A few nights later, I ducked into the original Tavern in the Square at midnight, just to see if I had it all wrong. I didn't, but it's nothing a little trivia and a sassy waitress couldn't salvage.
* Thomas Edison; ** "Save Tonight"
Tavern in the Square, 1815 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-7766. Appetizers: $7.99-$11.99. Entrees: $11.99-$21.99.
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.