It was late February - and a notoriously slow Monday at that - but the crowds spilling out onto the patio in front of Tribeca Tavern on opening night made it clear that west Cary was thirsty.
No wonder. Anchored by Preston, one of the Triangle's largest subdivisions, the area has attracted a variety of restaurants in recent years, but had failed to land one of those fashionable draft microbrew pubs that have been popping up all over the place of late.
Nor is it surprising that Dean Ogan is the one who noticed the gap and moved to fill it. One of the area's most successful restaurateurs, Ogan owns several popular eateries - among them Michael Dean's, Bogart's, and Red Room - under the umbrella of Rocky Top Hospitality. The fact that Rocky Top's holdings also include Mash House Brewery in Fayetteville and Hi5 on Glenwood South (one of those trendy pubs) makes Ogan's decision to open Tribeca Tavern seem inevitable.
But the new restaurant in Cary is hardly a clone of Hi5, or any other pub for that matter. The atmosphere is decidedly more upscale and family-friendly (with a stone fireplace, no less) than a sports bar, for one thing, though the requisite TV screens are discreetly scattered about the place.
Tar Heel beer and beef
Then there's Tribeca Tavern's strong North Carolina focus. The bar's 20 taps dispense beers that are brewed exclusively in the state - a diverse selection ranging from Foothills Torch Pilsner to Duck Rabbit Milk Stout to MashHouse's own award-winning IPA. And, while the menu is still evolving into Ogan's farm-to-fork vision for the restaurant, there's already more than sufficient emphasis on local produce to set the restaurant apart from the competition.
Nowhere is that emphasis more evident than in Tribeca Tavern's signature burgers. Coastal Cattle Company in Beaufort County supplies the grass-fed beef, which is ground fresh daily, hand-patted into whopping 10-ounce burgers, grilled to order and served on a Neo monde bun with locally grown romaine lettuce and heirloom tomatoes (as long as they're in season). A seasonally changing list of more than a dozen variations is offered, from Southern Lovin' (topped with fried green tomatoes, Goat Lady cheese, bacon and balsamic) to The Blazin' Asian (ginger- and soy-marinated beef, wasabi mayo, wild mushrooms, shredded carrots, grilled green onions and bean sprouts).
For my money, though, such baroque combinations upstage the exceptional quality of the beef, whose rich, meaty flavor and coarsely ground texture (with a little rib-eye and filet mixed in for balance) deserve top billing. I'll stick with the classic cheeseburger, thank you. I'm partial to the hoop cheese from Ashe County Cheese Company, one of 15 cheeses currently offered.
If the rest of the menu seems a little like an afterthought, that's partly because the burgers are so good, and partly because a number of dishes are borrowed from other Rocky Top restaurants. Michael Dean's shrimp and grits come to mind, along with cheesy poofs and Japanese black chicken wings, two best-selling appetizers at Hi5.
A work in progress
There's nothing wrong with that; those dishes got to be popular for a reason. It's also worth noting that the menu is still in flux, as Ogan tweaks the offering in response to farmers' markets and customer feedback. He recently replaced the fried green beans appetizer with fried green tomatoes, and may return the green beans to the menu. I vote that he keep both, along with the crispy zucchini chips and made-to-order guacamole.
Ogan recently expanded theentree offering, adding three cheese tortellini, prosciutto-wrapped salmon and a Mediterranean-inflected chicken dish to a lineup that also includes fish tacos, barbecue pork ribs and a center cut grass-fed rib-eye steak. The ribs and salmon I sampled were both respectable, but neither would tempt me away from ordering a burger next time I visit.
The kitchen and wait staff are still going through the new restaurant learning curve, but management cheerfully makes amends when notified of a problem. Knowing Ogan's track record, I'd expect the wrinkles to be ironed out sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, Tribeca Tavern is doing enough things right that reservations are a good idea on weekends, when the wait for atable can otherwise be an hour or more. I told you west Cary was thirsty.