When the Grovewood Tavern opened, it was widely praised by diners and critics alike as a hidden gem worthy of a trek across town. The Collinwood dive on a blue-collar residential block was a pioneer in the neighborhood saloon-turned-bistro genre that later included places like Tremont Tap House, XYZ Tavern and Bistro 185. What fearless diners got when they landed on the unapologetically shabby shores was, invariably, "food that greatly exceeded their expectations."
That's no longer the case.
It's not that the food at Grovewood is any less agreeable; it's that the expectations surrounding that food have risen disproportionally with the experience at large. What made Grovewood such a hit was the unlikely marriage of a dive bar setting with upscale comfort food at ridiculously low prices. Those prices are no longer rock bottom, the setting hasn't been shabby for years, and the number of restaurants that have opened up in the intervening span that do it better and cheaper is staggering.
It's been more than 15 years since the Grovewood opened, which is a tremendous feat of perseverance in its own right. And while nobody expects prices to remain encased in amber, many of those on the current menu simply are inconsistent with the dishes to which they are attached. After recently devouring my weight in fried chicken for a different feature, I can say with certainty that Grovewood's buttermilk fried chicken ranks right up there with some of the best around. But at $22 a plate — even with grits and greens — it is also some of the priciest.
Current chef John Bausone has a knack for updating comfort foods like stuffed cabbage. In his version, he swaps the customary meat-and-rice filling for Moroccan-spiced veggies, rye berries and chestnuts, making it vegan-friendly. What it isn't is wallet-friendly, coming in at $23 per order. Not even the fancy Savoy cabbage wrappers warrant that supplement.
One of the few legacy items to remain on the newly revamped menu is the yakitori, the universally adored cold sesame noodles served with one's choice of protein. Apart from the chicken ($18), which had an oddly dry but slippery exterior, the dish is as good as we remember. The popular duck version, whimsically dubbed the Quakitori, is no longer available.
Bausone also tweaked the pot stickers to good, if not necessarily better, effect, replacing the shrimp and pork filling for a vegetarian version starring a minced mushroom mixture. They are now called Lithuanian koldunai ($10), and they are pan-fried and trimmed with a seasonal garnish of cabbage, apple and crème fraiche.
No menu should be stuck in the past, and Grovewood's new roster is loaded with fresh-sounding items that warrant a try. The bay scallop fritters ($8) arrive airy, briny and subtly sweet from the sea. But they are anything but crispy as a fritter should be. You can't stumble into a restaurant these days that doesn't offer some sort of pizza, and this saloon is no exception. Here, it goes by the name of grilled flatbread ($8), and it is little more than a tortilla wrapper topped with sliced ham and cheese. "This is the sort of thing I make at home when there is nothing left in the fridge," quipped a companion. Other than the fact that the ham was Berkshire and the cheese gruyere, there was no arguing with him.
On the recommendation of our server, who managed the dining room like a pro, we ordered the smoked bison brisket ($24). It was pleasantly smoky, but stringy and tough as nails. Upon closer inspection, I could see that the kitchen never bothered to remove the silver skin before cooking it, which, unlike the meat beneath, gets tougher the longer it cooks.
The Grovewood still maintains a large and unselfishly priced wine list, with a number of great by-the-glass and bottle options. The cocktail and craft beer selections have improved over time, with fresh-poured pints of Victory ($4.75) or well-built classic cocktails like the Aviation ($10) now joining the grape-dominated line-up.
The irony of a tale like this one is that Grovewood, by evolving over the years into a high-priced destination restaurant, no longer succeeds as a tavern that serves its own neighborhood. Since the restaurant opened in 1999, diners have gained dozens of high-quality eateries to choose from, many in their very own neighborhoods, making those cross-town drives seem all the more superfluous.