The Common Table: Good Beer, Uncommonly Poor Food.
As bartenders working in the exhausted vodka idiom have discovered, it's hard to mix together a few flavored liquors and fruit juices and not end up with a sugary riff on Hawaiian Punch. To distract the sweet-tooth crowd from the syrupy sameness of their concoctions, some mixologists have begun leaning on wacky glasses, pretty garnishes and an inventive nomenclature in which classic slings and cobblers are bestowed with flim-flam names meant to evoke newness and urbanity.
That's the ploy at The Common Table, a modest Uptown hangout that's taken over the spot vacated by Lola. Each of the restaurant's cocktails is named for something great that happened on June 2, the day The Common Table opened. Thirsty for a vodka cranberry with lychee fruit liqueur? That's a First Lady, commemorating birthday girl Martha Washington. P.T. Barnum and the Marquise de Sade have their own drinks too, although the connection between honoree and recipe is often tenuous: I still can't figure out what Chicago's elevated train has to do with apple cider and lemon vodka.
As a rookie historian, I was initially charmed by The Common Table's dredging up forgotten fun facts to sell spirits. It's not often I see the words "Wally Pipp" on a menu. But the longer I spent at the restaurant, the more I thought about other, less-glorious events that transpired on June 2.
I'm not saying The Common Table is a disaster on par with the deadly cyclone that struck Bombay on June 2, 1965. Or that its missteps are as egregious as the British parliament's decision on June 2, 1774, to force American colonists to house Redcoats. But I feel pretty comfortable adding the restaurant to the roll of unexceptional June 2 happenings we'd all have been better off without, along with Kraft's release of Velveeta cheese (1928) and Wilson Phillips' second album (1992).
To be fair, The Common Table is a great place to drink beer. The well-curated selection includes a few hard-to-find oddities that I didn't realize anyone was actively seeking—such as a bottle-conditioned Maudite priced at $89—and a good mix of domestic and international ales. Among the drafts are a few prize-winning brews that are well known in beer circles but still aren't swimming in the mainstream, including Dogfish Head's 90-Minute IPA and Dale's Pale Ale.
Whoever assembled the beer list at The Common Table clearly loves beer enough to have fun with it—beer figures into five mixed drinks, including a refreshing pils and lemonade blend—and configure its offerings for sampling and sharing. Drafts are served in two sizes, and customers can order a $10 flight featuring four beers of their choosing. That's a better option than a $10 Iron Horse cocktail, a fancified Pimm's Cup that's far too sweet. And it makes more sense in the boxy, pub-like setting: Light that dim and wood that dark provoke a Pavlovian craving for hops.
Happily, the beer's just as appealing outside, on the restaurant's low-key, spacious patio. Relaxing there with a pint of Saison Dupont would be a terrific finish to a summer work day.
Except that a server's likely to show up with a menu. Not in any sort of timely manner, to be sure, but eventually there will be talk of food. That's because The Common Table won't leave the restaurant thing alone. Rather than content themselves with providing a fine neighborhood watering hole, the folks behind The Common Table have announced their edible ambitions. They've assembled a highfalutin menu with a $22 filet, and made "food" the second noun in their online mission statement, which calls for "friendly people serving honest food." It's The Common Table, not The Common Stein.
So it's impossible to ignore the food, which ranges from unpleasant to horrific. I ate and ate and ate at The Common Table, valiantly trying to find a dish worthy of praise. I concocted various theories I hoped would serve as helpful guideposts for future customers—perhaps the restaurant excels only at sandwiches, or aces anything with tomatoes or nails entrées whose names start with the letter "a"—but the food I sampled crushed them all. By the end of my second visit, I felt like I was rubbernecking rather than eating, strangely fixated by the kitchen's unrelenting failures.
Since The Common Table's a good-times destination, I suspect the menu's small plates section gets the most traffic. While any of the six listed items could function as an appetizer, the restaurant also offers a $19 "share any three" deal. What complicates the plating is only three of the available plates are natural cohorts—calamari, bruschetta and veal parmesan sliders—so guests are stuck pondering whether they really want peppery Buffalo meatballs alongside spring rolls coated with a gooey yuzu sauce.
My advice is not to sweat it, since few of the dishes have sufficient taste to make clashing flavors a concern. The dry veal sliders, featuring meat slabs as thick as a deck of cards, were so unremittingly bland that I could easily have been persuaded I was eating pork or chicken or mastodon. The bruschetta, crowned with frosted pink tomato dices and a drift of thinly grated low-quality parmesan, was similarly flavorless.
The sesame-yuzu sauce served with the pulled pork spring rolls had a flavor—sweet—which helpfully disguised the greasy, stringy pork. Neither the spring rolls nor the cornmeal-battered calamari were well-served by frying the night I tried them: The oil tasted old and dirty.
A workmanlike Caesar salad made with browning lettuce was, thankfully, small, although charging $8 for a saucer-sized serving of lettuce and croutons borders on outrageous. The Common Table seems to be adjusting its portions with the alacrity of someone who's just been ordered to slash overhead costs. When my dining companion asked about a Philly steak sandwich, our server gave him a pep talk about leftovers. "Most people can't even finish it," he warned. "They take it home, and that's fine."
In retrospect, maybe those diners were just being kind. The dried beef sandwich—which, paired with a ramekin of jus, couldn't even get points for being canonically correct—measured about six dainty bites long.
Or maybe our server really hadn't gotten word from the kitchen that the sandwich had been downsized. The restaurant seemed to suffer from a serious disconnect between the front and back of the house: My servers didn't know much about the menu, or—in at least one case—approve of it:
"Now, I think cobbler should always be served with ice cream," the male ego-boosting server told me when I ordered dessert. "But they don't do it here. Do you want to add it? It's like 50 cents or something."
OK, sure. But it turned out the server was wrong: The add-on was $4. (To his credit, the server told me before the bill arrived.)
Another misguided server steered me confidently toward a wretched, industrial-tasting chicken-fried rib-eye, adorned with gluey gravy and served with mashed potatoes studded with unmelted nuggets of chemical-esque smoked cheddar cheese. Still, that dish was a notch better than a burger that arrived with it: While the dull gray patty wasn't the slightest bit juicy, the bun was inexplicably soggy. We ate the cold, limp fries instead.
Yet even with so much really disappointing food on the menu, the place stays busy. There always seems to be a well-dressed, buzzy crowd there; The Common Table is the kind of restaurant you text your friends about. And with good reason: The au courant energy and imaginative beer list make it an excellent place to meet for a drink. Just warn your guests to eat beforehand.
The Common Table 2917 Fairmount St., 214-880-7414, thecommontable.com. Open 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday $$
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