The closer one sticks to the “tavern” aspect of Mighty Tavern in Fair Oaks, the more satisfying the dining experience becomes.
One night, we took a seat at the cozy bar, ordered the stellar burger and fries (an encore from an earlier visit), listened to good country music and took the bartender’s strong advice about Scotch. This experience far exceeded previous visits, during which we sat in the restaurant’s dining room.
Opened in 2013 in the Fair Oaks Boulevard space that once housed the La Bohème French restaurant, Mighty Tavern is in flux. Chef Jason Azevedo left earlier this year (he’s now at Hock Farm). His successor, Christian Flood, also just split, for Hawks Provisions and Public House, set to open later this month.
Dennis Lapuyade – who co-owned and co-managed the restaurant with his ex-wife and business partner, Joan Reid Lapuyade – recently moved to Switzerland. Lapuyade once was the maitre d’ at Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse, and co-founded Cesar, the tapas place next door. Reid Lapuyade, who has worked as a restaurant consultant and also was involved with Cesar, remains at Mighty Tavern.
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Her mother owns the building, which started as a pub in the 1970s. “Mighty” was the name of Reid Lapuyade’s childhood pet rooster. Fowl-themed artwork in the bar/entry evokes Mighty and also brings to mind the feral chickens of nearby Fair Oaks Village.
Turnover in the food world is nearly constant. Catch any young restaurant at the right moment, and you might find entry-exit numbers similar to those here. But Mighty Tavern, which is nearly 2 1/2 years old, also still physically looks like a restaurant in transition, its timeless bar at odds with a white-tablecloth dining room seemingly from another era.
But let’s start with the restaurant’s distinctive, highly intriguing exterior. Its green shingles and vegetation-wrapped wood pillars give the place an unlikely woodsy feel, despite its location just off a busy suburban boulevard.
The front door opens into a bar area whose heavy wood elements and squat bar stools engender that welcoming “tavern” feeling – a feeling a bar-goer holds in his or her DNA, left over from the days of mead.
The dining room, to one’s right, looks decidedly less tavernlike. The room’s prominent fireplace, formal-looking, curved-leg chairs and well-worn carpet immediately transported me to my 1970s and ’80s childhood, and special nights out at restaurants with “chateau” or “chalet” in their names.
We tried to embrace the setting’s throwback elegance, and were excited to be seated at what appeared to be the best table in the house, near the fireplace. But the fireplace, likely lit by gas, emitted no heat. A lack of heat is understandable, given all the restrictions on emissions. But the air around the table actually held a chill.
The food was spottier on our dining-room visits than on our final visit, when we sat at the bar. This also shaped our opinions of the two spaces.
Though Mighty Tavern often alters its menu, the unimaginative entree list (chicken breast, salmon, pasta of the day) remained virtually unchanged during our visits.
Unimaginative is fine for a straight tavern, less so for a place with white tablecloths and $20-plus prices on some entrees. Granted, chef Eric Warren – a Mighty Tavern kitchen veteran who took over when Flood left – incorporates high-end, seasonal ingredients, as reflected in a butternut-squash soup of the day and a risotto with squash.
The soup was flavorful, with a latent kick, but ultimately too sweet. The risotto was overly squishy, though the star of the risotto dish, the pan-roasted salmon for which it served as a side, was expertly prepared.
Mighty Tavern might be too focused on incorporating historical fall favorites, since its menu a few weeks ago offered Dungeness crab cakes in appetizer and entrée portions. Our server assured us the crab came from Washington state, outside California’s crab-toxicity zone. Regardless of origin, the cakes were too fishy.
On the previous visit, I tried a Scotch-egg starter (poached egg wrapped in lamb sausage) that looked great but tasted slightly of rubber. Other items from this visit were better. The minestrone soup held fresh-tasting vegetables that maintained a slight crunch. Exquisitely tender short ribs, in their rich demi-glace sauce, suited the setting, since all those ’70s restaurant memories entailed clothes-tightening amounts of beef and attendant meat fogs. The rib dish’s only drawbacks were the oil rivulets visible within the sauce and accompanying polenta cakes that tasted primarily of oil.
The dining-room visits yielded two unqualified successes: a Greek-themed pizza of the day, and that memorable house burger and fries.
The pizza combined Greek olives, peppery arugula, salty feta and a Mediterranean “salsa” composed of tomato, red onion, garlic and other flavors. A crisp, thin crust worked with jack and mozzarella cheeses to mollify the salty and spicy elements into a nice flavor balance.
The burger is made with Niman Angus beef and features what Warren calls typical “backyard barbecue” ingredients: ketchup, mustard, lettuce, dill pickle, caramelized onions and jack cheese. I call this combination “bingo,” since it delivers the acidity I seek and don’t find in restaurant burgers with fancy, zing-free aiolis.
An airy yet sturdy Bella Bru bun holds the burger together on a few levels. Warren sears the bun’s top and bottom face down, in butter, adding rich flavor and crisping the bread enough to ensure a sandwich that will not fall apart.
We ordered the burger medium, and it came that way. Not well-done posing as medium, but the real, still-juicy McCoy. The burger was so good, and the hand-cut fries accompanying it so crisp and expertly seasoned, that we ordered this plate again on our bar visit. It arrived cooked precisely to medium-rare order, the meat even juicier than on the previous visit.
It was a Friday night, and the bar was packed with well-dressed people in their 40s and 50s who were regulars, judging by the number who seemed to know Reid Lapuyade, who was greeting guests.
The atmosphere remained warm and convivial even when diners’ entrances and exits from the front door created a draft. The sound system offered a play list that seemed tailored to what I want to hear in a bar, alternating old-school country (Johnny and June, Hank Jr.) and recent Americana (Avett Brothers).
All the food we ordered that night was good, including the rib-eye, the demi-glace sauce on which illuminated the steak’s satisfyingly strong beefy flavor. Brussel sprouts accompanying the beef were still crunchy yet not bitter – not an easy combination to pull off.
The polenta cakes with the steak remained as problematic as they had been with the short ribs. But I was too much in my element – precisely, a bar that’s down-home enough to be comfortable but not so down-home a fight is likely to erupt – to mind much.
Mighty Tavern fulfilled another vital requirement for a fine night out at a tavern: a no-nonsense bartender. When I asked the bartender what Scotch came in the “Kilty Pleasure” house cocktail – which also holds ginger liqueur, orange juice and chocolate bitters – he said it was a blend.
I find blends to be waxy-tasting, so I asked if I could sub a single malt. He said it would cost $6 more than the cocktail’s $8 price, and also (paraphrasing here) would be ridiculous, since the Scotch is not a forward flavor in the drink.
I went with the blend. I found the drink refreshing but the bartender even more so. Instead of choosing customer-is-always-right politeness or go with a customer-initiated upcharge, he leveled with me. That’s mighty real.
9634 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks, www.mightytavern.com, 916-241-9444
Hours: Dining room – 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Bar – 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Thanksgiving Day.
Beverage options: Full bar. Compact, California-centric wine list. Beers on tap include offerings from American River Brewing Co.
Vegetarian-friendly: To a degree. There are salads, and the soup and pizza of the day we tried were vegetarian. Most entrees are not vegetarian.
Gluten-free options: Yes. Mighty Tavern offers gluten-free bread and other substitutions.
Noise level: Moderate
Ambiance: The bar area, which on a recent Friday night was filled with what appeared to be regulars from the neighborhood, is cozy and inviting, and the vibe warm and convivial. The dining room, with its formal-looking chairs and well-worn carpet, looks a bit stuck in time.
Overall ☆☆ 1/2
Misfires from the kitchen miss big, but there were enough successes to encourage return visits. Service is efficient and friendly.
Food ☆☆ 1/2
The crab cakes were too fishy and the polenta cakes (served with the short rib and rib-eye entrees) mostly flavorless apart from tasting greasy. But the burger and fries impressed, as did the house-baked apple pie, with its flaky, buttery crust. The rib-eye and pan-roasted salmon also were cooked perfectly.
Efficient and friendly throughout, and truly memorable on one occasion – when the bartender took a stand and told us our desire for single-malt Scotch in a house cocktail was misguided.
Mighty Tavern uses high-quality, seasonal ingredients. But prices for the salmon ($24) and rib-eye ($28) seem high given that some parts of the dish (risotto with the salmon, polenta cakes with the steak) were lacking.