Pub worthy of the name

Where's the dart board?
That's what I kept wondering when I first went to a brew pub. During the past few years, the country has been flooded with these places. Almost without exception, they're large, noisy barns, where it's impossible to have a conversation along with your beer. It was a self-misguided quest to continue looking for the "pub" in the "brew pub."

If you stick strictly to Webster's No. 1, a pub is just a place to drink. But words roll around, they gain and lose nuance and resonance; the word "pub" has come to mean a little more, and now it means a little less. The pub, or the corner bar in this country, isn't supposed to be just a place to drink. Don't you watch the The Simpsons? Where does Homer go when he needs more than a beer and his TV, when he needs a beer and a friendly conversation? To Mo's Place, that's where. A good bar or pub is a place to raise the spirits; it offers companionship and good spirits, not just strong ones. It allows and even promotes conversation, and the best bars serve good food, too. Thomas Avenue Beverage Company is a good example of the '90s corner pub.

The corner of Allen and Thomas avenues doesn't look like Dallas at all. Rows of monolithic "townhomes" line the street, curb to curb, on the south. To the north are the same weedy fields that were the backdrop to Henderson's Chicken, the premier restaurant in the black neighborhood that existed here before the apartments were unrolled. Thomas Avenue Beverage Company, which I will, from now on, for reasons of space, refer to as TABC (yes, it's a little joke) is right on the corner, a spot of self-effacing welcome in the midst of all those imposing gray façades.

We were given a friendly seat-yourself welcome, and the waiter dragged over the huge blackboard that serves as the menu. We ordered a drink--there are no frozen-drink machines and the bartender knows how to make a daiquiri.

TABC started out as a basic neighborhood bar, but the enterprising Shannon Patrick McKinnon (who had graduated from a food service program in college and in 1994 came back to Dallas to buy the Green Elephant, a college hangout) had expansive ideas for the place when he and his partners bought it (oddly, from former employees at the Green Elephant). It was McKinnon's credo that even though people might come there to drink, the food should be exceptional. The partners formed a company called Haight-Ashbury Inc.Their modest goal is to operate a string of no-hype, no-glitz neighborhood restaurants. Mark Jensen is the chef, and August 19, Mike Smith, formerly head chef at Arcodoro, joined Thomas Avenue's kitchen staff, too.

So the menu is far and beyond what you would expect from what appears to be a drinking establishment. At night, dishes include pasta, smoked salmon, Brie, grilled chicken and beef, as well as sandwiches. The kitchen's ambition was clear from the big brown loaves of fresh bread cooling on the table next to us. I mean, whoever heard of a bar that bakes its own bread?

The waitress brought us a basket containing four toasted slices of bread and a ramekin of red-bell-pepper butter with our salads, which were not very good, even though the Vintner's Salad held crumbles of creamy goat cheese among its greens with a balsamic dressing. But linguine with marinara was a huge nest of noodles with fresh, tart tomato sauce. And though smoked-chicken ravioli was not what we expected--a bowl of tomato-dressed, cheese-filled ravioli topped with a boned chicken breast, probably originally intended for a grilled-chicken sandwich at lunch--it was still good. The lamb sandwich, a brown stew of tender lamb served over toasted bread, was a winter dish, and so couldn't present its best effect on a muggy summer day; but it was so satisfyingly homespun that we easily overlooked its being out of season and just hoped we remembered to come eat it during sweater weather.

The inevitable chicken breast with sauteed vegetables was fine and tender (but why would it not be?). The vegetables with it were as completely bland as we all expect modern vegetables to be. When did salting and peppering vegetables become so disregarded? What happened to the advice to "season to taste"? (Nobody in the kitchen "tastes," that's what. Or they'd realize that this carrot was not crisp-tender, it had only been cooked to the tenderness of vinyl).

At lunch, the menu steps back into a traditional pub role. The chef pats out a decent hamburger, and grills a good chicken sandwich. Pasta California--pasta with fresh vegetables--suffered from the same blandness the same vegetables did when there was no pasta entwined with them.

But dessert was a minor miracle. When we asked, because we always have to, we were told that the dessert selection was blueberry or chocolate cheesecake and a chocolate-chip cookie à la mode. We were planning to skip dessert when Tim told us that our waitress had baked the cheesecakes that day, which, as it turned out, meant that afternoon, so of course we asked for a slice. This chocolate cheesecake had never seen the inside of a refrigerator, so all its creamy innocence was intact. Still warm, the graham-cracker-crumb crust was caramelized and toasty, and the deep-chocolate cheese was whipped as light as foam, dissolving in a chocolate puddle on the tongue and running down your throat like warm milk. Bull's-eye.

Thomas Avenue Beverage Company, 2901 Thomas Ave., 979-0452. Open Monday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

Thomas Avenue Beverage Company:
Everything on the menu is $6 each
Vintner's Salad $6 (entree)
Linguine with Smoked Salmon $8.50
Smoked-Chicken Pasta $8.50
Grilled Swordfish $13


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