As a “restaurant critic,” it’s not just my job to talk about food. There’s a lot to be said for customer service—and lack thereof. Case in point: A friendly manager who acknowledges my existence and inquires about my dining experience would likely make up for an inedible sandwich and mac ‘n’ cheese that undoubtedly came from a blue and orange box.
Here we go, Tavern.
The Pointe at Barclay is getting on its feet still, so I told myself when it came to checking out the community’s new restaurants, I would be gentle. Currently a quieter time in Wilmington, now is a great opportunity for novel spots to hone their craft and train employees with precision. When two empty water glasses sit blatantly in sight of a waiter for an entire meal. without even a glance, I wouldn’t necessarily call that a bang-up job. But I don’t blame him per se; I blame the nearby manager who made more service-industry mistakes in one lunch sitting than I can count on one hand.
But let’s talk food first.
I had been holding off on visiting the beer-centric Tavern, as their uneven mixture of online reviews were less than intoxicating. While one customer vowed never to return after poorly cooked fish and a rude confrontation from the staff, another swore Tavern had the best grouper tacos in town. I went in with an open mind.
The ahi tacos hit high notes more often than not online, so my dining companion and I grabbed a seat at the nearly-empty bar and took off with the tuna. We also went for the “Masters” burger, a recommendation of our server-slash-bartender. The tacos had several textures and layers of flavor: salty from a thick, soy glaze, sweet from mango slaw, and crispy-crunchy from the wonton shell. The cloying fruit salsa added an eruption of sugar that dominated the flavor of the bland ahi. I don’t question the freshness of the fish, but it was the least interesting item on the plate. Served alongside was a mound of Mexican rice and scoop of black beans. The rice was seasoned well, but as far as appearance goes, other than the bright yellow from the mango, the dish was missing vibrancy.
As far as “bar food” goes, the burger got the job done. The meat was fresh, the in-house pimiento cheese was gooey and the caramelized onions were savory. Creativity-wise, the overall burger menu was elementary. The drunken collards stood out as one of the more unique sides, so we opted for those. What we got instead was a bowl of sad-looking Brussels sprouts. I flipped to the back of the menu hoping the accident was the “steamed” veg of the day. I don’t doubt Tavern is roasting its Brussels, but when a vegetable comes out looking and smelling like something grandma made—or served soggy and wet—consider your verbiage. The only reason the little green cabbages found their way back to modern kitchens is because chefs began roasting them at a super-high heat and caramelizing the sugars while crisping the outer leaves.
Note to home-cooks and Tavern’s chef: If the execution intended were to be roasted Brussels that came out soggy, you overcrowded your baking sheet (resulting in steam)—or didn’t crank the heat enough.
I motioned to the Brussels and asked the server if the kitchen was out of collards. He apologized and offered to put them in our to-go bag along with the “Famous” Reuben sandwich we ordered for a friend.
Even when the full meal was placed in front of us (empty water glasses and all), our server didn’t come back to check on us until we were finished. And at that point, he simply asked if we needed anything else but didn’t acknowledge the vacant cups.
On a positive note, the salad contained mixed greens (a step up from traditional iceberg lettuce) and their ranch was tasty and homemade. Yes, the small cup of dressing was the highlight of lunch.
As soon as we left, I opened the Styrofoam box to find the bottom slices of marbled rye were soggy and the corned beef was rubbery. Three ballsy moves by Tavern: listing a menu item as “famed” despite being brand new and suggesting it was “the best in Wilmington” by another customer—and then recommending what was obviously a pre-packaged mac ‘n’ cheese side. If I’m way off-base and the mac was homemade, I apologize. But elbow noodles in flavorless, bright orange cheese sauce is not something to brag about.
Though he had a dozen times to greet us, ask about our meal, etc., the manager sitting nearby did none of the above.
We had to flag him down for his attention.
We had to ask if he was an owner or manager.
We introduced ourselves, and after asking us if it’s our first time here, we didn’t receive a follow-up regarding the meal. Instead, he stood behind the bar and stared at his phone, annoyingly remarking on Wilmington’s off-season and the restaurant’s lack of capacity.
Even if I wasn’t overly impressed with the fare, I was astonished at the absence of professionalism by management. I might have excused the bland tuna or given props to the draft lineup, had the experience been pleasant. First impressions are everything.
To the hardworking folks who put in the many exhaustive hours it takes to open a restaurant, I want to be clear: I salute you. In fact, I’m rooting for you. I wouldn’t be doing you (or future patrons) justice if I wasn’t honest about my experience: It needs work. I hope you will turn it around to become the spot everyone wants to clamor to—it’s not too late.