CAMBRIDGE -- The words are barely big enough to read at the bottom of the menu: "Sorry we left . . . it's great to be back." But they say a lot about the Swan.
Until about two years ago, the building at the corner of Cardinal Medeiros Avenue and Bristol Street in Kendall Square housed the much-loved Kendall Café, a gritty neighborhood pub that was a haven for local singer-songwriters and rockers. Owner Michael Tallon, proprietor of the Kendall since 1994, sold it in 2004 to focus on a new restaurant/coffee shop/condo complex he was opening in Hyde Park, but the Kendall's new ownership didn't pan out, and the pub sat vacant until Tallon reopened it as the Swan the day before New Year's Eve.
Unfortunately, I'm sad to report, the grit is gone. The stage in the corner of the upper room has been removed, the walls have been freshly painted in mauve and yellow, and big bouquets of flowers sit in the front windows. Oh, and there are swans. It's like somebody's prissy aunt decided to come over and tidy up.
What really happened, after Tallon was forced to step back in, was that he turned the upstairs rental apartments into condos and became a more grown-up landlord. As he puts it, "Rock 'n' roll and condos wouldn't have been exactly compatible."
And rock 'n' roll the Swan ain't. The makeover has left the place with a barren, almost antiseptic feel. A few music posters hang on the wall, Joe the ceramic penguin is back behind the bar, and there's a funny little alcove with a TV tuned to what else, the Red Sox -- with a Jim Croce album on the shelf above it. But that's about it as far as flair goes.
The Kendall Café chef is back on duty in the kitchen, and the menu is not an uninteresting one. Jaoa Sena, who lives in one of the condos upstairs, has provided a few Brazilian touches, such as a modified salpicao, a salty slaw made with chicken, deep-fried potato strings, grated carrots, and apples -- although this version doesn't have chicken, or much flavor. The buttery Brazilian steak tips, served with sautéed peppers and onions, fare much better.
The offerings are a true hodgepodge, from a messy pulled pork sandwich to a satisfying yet uninspiring chicken-vegetable curry served over black beans and rice -- a Kendall Café favorite, apparently. There are a few burgers -- one topped with a fried egg -- and a fish sandwich that left a slightly metallic twang on the tongue. The riblet appetizer, swimming in a sweet barbecue sauce, tasted almost exactly like the rib entrée, and the coconut shrimp tempura tasted pretty much like coconut oil.
There are 20 beers on tap though, and the thin, crispy angel-hair onion rings are close to perfect, as are the lightly fried calamari rings, which come with a pleasantly spicy marinara sauce. The warm peach cobbler with ice cream is downright heavenly.
So what's the deal with the swans? Our waitress told us they were an Irish symbol of rebirth, but Tallon said it was an homage to his mother and mother-in-law. Tallon's childhood home in Ireland was filled with hundreds of porcelain swans, and his wife's mother, who grew up on a farm in Ireland, stamped swans on the butter she sold to local merchants as a girl.
Knowing the Swan has a back story that involves an Irish girl churning butter makes me want to really love it, but there is plenty of room for improvement. There is a lingering sewer smell outside the front door, for one thing. And it wouldn't hurt to hire another waitress or two. When we were there Tuesday night, there was one woman acting as server, bartender, and hostess, causing us to search for our own menus behind the counter.
Tallon is aware of these issues, and he also knows the place could use a more friendly vibe. That's why he's rearranging the dining room and putting up more old Kendall memorabilia.
The apology on the front of the menu seems to be aware of the differences, too. Great to be back? Maybe, but we're more sorry that the old Kendall Café ever went away in the first place.
The Swan, 233 Cardinal Medeiros Ave., Cambridge. 617-661-1166. Entrees: $8.25-$14.95. Wine by the glass: $7-$10.50.