|50 Warren is tucked inside the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center, which is the only hotel downtown. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/FILE)|
Hotel venue offers fine food, but is short on ambience
At a time when hotel bars are the place to sip and be seen and hotel restaurants have become celebrity chef magnets, why, on a pleasant Wednesday evening, was 50 Warren deader than dead?
Anchoring downtown Lowell’s only hotel, the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center, the restaurant should have been hopping. Or at least breathing. Situated alongside a scenic canal and offering meals with reasonable prices, 50 Warren may find its footing, but it still has a way to go.
It’s not that the food is bad. Everything we tried was more than palatable, but this place defies one of the main principles of dining: ambience.
Faced with the choice of sitting in an empty dining room, an elevated space encased in glass walls where flip-flop-wearing UMass students who room upstairs walk through with their laundry, we chose the bar.
Amid the sterile aura of the tiled bar that feels like a lab, the gas fireplace welcomed us.
We plopped down on a comfy couch and ordered the recommended smoked-bacon-wrapped scallops appetizer ($11).
When the five large scallops, smelling rich and wintry, arrived on bamboo skewers, we forgot the barren feel here and pretended we were in a ski lodge. The bacon was not fatty and the tangy ginger dipping sauce worked well with the plump scallops.
We focused on the food, because there was nothing else to look at besides Justin Bieber on TV and a bored but friendly bartender dashing off text messages under the counter.
She assured us that a crowd had just left to see a show at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, and that 50 Warren is a popular spot for concertgoers. Could be. A big group would certainly enliven things.
Most of us, unless we hate to cook, don’t dine out for sustenance alone. That’s what sub shops are for. We want a vibe, a buzz, a rush, a reason to get out of our jeans and fork over our credit card during this season of excess.
The food saved the night from being a bust.
The menu is limited, with three entrees, three sandwiches, and small plates such as bruschetta ($6) and chicken wings ($7). Good news is that the plates are not so small, and attention is paid to fresh ingredients.
Salads are respectable. Roasted wild mushrooms and spinach with grilled artichokes ($6) was hearty and healthy. Served in small bowls with a light herbal dressing, these were not made to share.
If you are in a sharing mood, the rigatoni ($13, or $15 with shrimp or chicken) is your dish.
The heaping, and I mean gigantic, bowl of pasta could feed a family of four. The roasted tomato cream sauce with basil and grilled shrimp hit the mark. It was tangy, satisfying, not overly rich or creamily cloying. The pasta was cooked right and tasted quite fresh, and the dish held up as fortifying leftovers when it was brought out the next day for lunch.
The grilled rib eye ($21) was an ample portion if slightly fatty, but the plating was an assault to culinary school 101. Served with a terrine of scalloped potatoes and two thin slices of grilled acorn squash, it was colorless and uninspiring to view.
The wine list by the glass was better than expected, with a trusty pinot and a robust cabernet working well with the fare.
Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in an airport waiting area minus the travel buzz. Something needs to be done to raise 50 Warren to its target level.
On an up note, the bartender told us plans are in the works to make the place more human, but with all the choices vying for one’s dining dollars it will be hard to give this address another look.