The strip mall space where The Corner Tavern & Grill opened last summer has been home to a number of eating and drinking establishments, from Italian ristorante to contemporary bistro and wine bar. Most didn't survive much longer than a year. No doubt, the owners of those restaurants would cite the location - tucked back in the corner of the L-shaped shopping center - as a reason for failure.
The owner of The Corner Tavern & Grill, in contrast, has taken that lemon of a location and made marketing lemonade. Most obviously, there's the clever double meaning of the name, playing on both the location and the cozy neighborhood-bar connotation of "the corner tavern." Then there's the motto: "You've been good. Go sit in The Corner." Catchy, but not surprising, given that Katherine Ward is, among other things, a business consultant.
Of course, all the cleverness in the world won't keep customers coming back if there's no substance to back it up. In charge of delivering that substance is executive chef Clarence Mitchell, who over the course of his 15-year career has worked his way up from dishwasher at a T.G.I. Friday's to, most recently, sous chef at Peak City Grill. For the most part, Mitchell's offering - an eclectic mix of pub favorites and traditional American fare with the occasional contemporary twist - does indeed deliver.
One of those twists is chicken tarragon, an entree featuring a boneless breast, moist and redolent of its namesake herb, topped with fresh mozzarella and roasted tomato. Another is the lentil and sausage soup that the chef offers sometimes as a special, a happy marriage of Mediterranean and Southern flavors in a brew so thick with tomatoes, corn and other vegetables that it evokes memories of Brunswick stew.
For the most part, though, the menu sticks closer to the tried-and-true path of fish and chips, shepherd's pie, barbecued ribs and steaks. For lighter appetites, entree salads include fajita, blackened salmon or steak, and just about every variation on the chicken theme you can think of.
Sandwich options travel the East Coast from Philly cheesesteak to Maryland crab cake, with inland side trips to the likes of Buffalo chicken, triple-decker club and house-made chicken salad. A distinctive corned beef on rye serves up juicy shreds of long-simmered corned beef with braised red cabbage and mustard aioli.
But the real stars of the sandwich show - of the entire menu, for that matter - are the burgers. Made with 10 ounces of sirloin, grilled to order and served on a soft pretzel roll, these jaw-stretching behemoths come in several variations, from bacon and cheese (your choice of six) to the garden burger, which assuages your cholesterol guilt with a pile of bean sprouts, lettuce, tomato and onion on a wheat roll. The avocado burger is so generously laden with caramelized onions, melted muenster cheese, cilantro mayo and buttery slices of avocado that it defies eating without spilling some of its contents onto the plate. Especially if you order it medium-rare, in which case you'll also be preoccupied with wiping your wrists with napkins.
The avocado burger is the best thing I sank my teeth into at The Corner, but the Buffalo wings are a close second. Fried "naked" (with no batter), they're juicy and exceptionally crisp, thanks to perfect timing with the fryer and a judicious hand with the sauce. Additional sauce is available on request, but do yourself a favor and first try the wings just as they're served.
The kitchen does miss the mark occasionally, but usually not by much. The beer batter on the fish was light and crisp on top when I tried it, but soggy on the bottom. On another occasion, fried oysters were tiny and overcooked.
The Corner Tavern is too new to have acquired the timeworn look of a classic neighborhood pub, but a friendly (and, for the most part, attentive) wait staff does its part to create the appropriate laid-back mood. By all appearances, the place is well on its way to living up to its name and thriving well past its first anniversary.