The word "tavern" might conjure up images of a dark and seedy place, funky with the scent of Camels and spilled beer, where the jukebox hasn’t changed since 1980. A hotel bar, on the other hand, can be a spiritless space, filled with itinerant drinkers with little connection to the city they've landed in.
It you buy into those stereotypes, the Front Room Tavern in the Hotel Lumen on Hillcrest Avenue has a surprise in store. They’ve carved out an identity distinct from the hotel, creating a lively neighborhood restaurant with a contemporary design that blasts away your expectations. As soon as you walk through the doors, it’s easy to forget your surroundings well before the first drink meets your hand.
Getting there has been a rocky process. Michael Ehlert took the reins in 2014, becoming the Front Room's fourth chef in its short two-year history. His revamped menu was a hit, but the neighborhood feel faded, and Ehlert quietly exited. Chef Taylor Kearney filled the void in 2015, bringing traditional Southern fare and adding touches to make it his own.
At the former Joule restaurant, Charlie Palmer, he was in charge of the charcuterie and dry-aging program and that experience shines through at the Front Room with a meat board that easily rivals other top Dallas charcuterie. The Louisiana barbecue shrimp is not sopped in sauce as is common but lightly brushed with a mild hot sauce that has more flavor than heat, with the jumbo shrimp sitting on a bed of cornbread salad, turnips and mustard greens. The deviled eggs come with traditional filling topped with crisp leeks and pickled shallot. Preserving was a childhood hobby of Kearney's, and he believes in pickling every vegetable within arm’s reach. Each one has a touch of sweet and sour without being overwhelming.
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He continues his stride with the large plates. The duck is dry-aged for 22 days, and the tender meat is enhanced with a crispy skin. It gets an extra boost of flavor from salumi-braised beans and garlic-thyme jus. His mastery of meat continues with pork served two ways: tenderloin and roasted belly with pork jus. This plate lets you compare contrasting flavors that harmonize with the textures of apple, cornbread and Brussels sprouts. Catfish — brought from Gulf Shores, Alabama, then cornmeal crusted — is a simple, delectable ode to the South. Hoppin’ John with tavern hot sauce and house-made tartar sauce rounds out the plate.
Raw oysters are available as well as an array of sides such as tavern cornbread with daily jam, whipped sweet potatoes topped with candied pecans and Kennebec frites that come with garlic aioli and chives. Butternut squash soup, chicken and dumplings and a selection of four leafy salads are also there for your choosing.
Cocktails here are as ambitious as the dinner menu. The Hemingway Old Fashioned is a complete 360 from the original cocktail birthed in Kentucky. With a base consisting of Solera dark rum aged 120 days extra in bourbon barrels, turbinado sugar with bourbon barrel-aged bitters and muddled banana, the delivery is smooth enough to make Papa Hemingway envious he didn’t concoct the recipe. If you’re into something a bit on the cool and refreshing end, The Green Goddess made with prairie cucumber vodka, sweet and sour, muddled cilantro, soda water and topped with a cucumber chain is refreshing enough to enjoy year round, day or night.
The Front Room Tavern is at 6101 Hillcrest Ave.