Complimentary popover. Mmmm, popovers.
Wayfare burger “Le Grand.”
The upstairs dining room.
I know plenty of people who were all ready to start hating on ~WAYFARE TAVERN~ before it even opened: a TV chef, Tyler Florence, taking over the beloved and historic Rubicon space! Grab your torches! Well, I gotta hand it to him—I think his group has created a space that many locals will be happy to be a regular at, and an easy pick the next time I have friends visiting from out of town. I dig the classic Barbary Coast-meets-men’s club décor, full of wood and brick and taxidermy and rich, warm tones, complete with a tomato-red billiard room, with the “red hot phone” that dials the kitchen directly. And I’m a wee bit obsessed with the sexy red chinoiserie wallpaper in the ladies room. (You can read more about the décor in this hardhat piece.)
The front bar area is always packed, and you’ll see plenty of women perched at the open kitchen’s counter, hoping for a glimpse of the affable and charismatic Tyler (although odds are good that you’ll see chef de cuisine Michael Thiemann instead). The crowd is a mix of Fi-Di types taking a load off/getting loaded after work, birthday groups, out-of-towners, and ladies out for a Chardonnay-fueled night on the town. The downstairs booths are the seats to score, but I also found the upstairs scene to be lively, while jazz and swing twinkle in the background. There’s an East Coast/early American vibe to the place, like the mosaic eagle logo on the stoop when you first walk in, repeated on the heavy oval plates that look like they’re replicas from some historical collection in Philadelphia.
So, what should you have on those plates? If you have a group of, say, three or more diners, the deviled eggs ($9 for six halves) are a good place to start, with yolks whipped with crème fraîche and mustard into a creamy smoothness, topped with a scattering of capers, fried little bits of anchovy, and a drizzle of peppery olive oil. In fact, the apps really lend themselves to sharing, making this an ideal place for group dining and double dates. And if you sat down to the poutine ($12) by yourself, I’d say you’re in trouble, buster. It’s a rich, wicked combo of braised short ribs in a death embrace with two types of Jack cheese and béchamel sauce that’s then draped over a pile of French fries (no, there aren’t any cheese curds, but it’s a tasty rendition). With some more black truffle shaved over the top for good measure (plus truffle oil is in there too, a pet peeve ingredient for me, but oh well). What a demented dish. I know what I’m having when my next bad day strikes. Waiter!
Additional evil (in spite of their celestial name) are the angels on horseback ($11)—dates wrapped in meaty slices of bacon, always a crowd pleaser. But the Wayfare version has the five date-bacon bundles nestled in a fennel-garlic purée, and dressed with a raisin-caper salsa verde, bringing nice acidity to the dish. My table shared the steak tartare ($16/$23), crowned with a bright yellow egg yolk and accompanied by perfectly toasted crostini. But there were just a touch too many shallots in the mix, and the parsley garnish was a bit distracting (I also had to perk it all up with a little more salt.) The grilled Monterey calamari ($9) are super delicious, the tender bodies sparked up with roasted garlic and smoked chile oil, and a squid ink vinaigrette.
Salads can be a bit hit and miss—I adored the bright green goddess dressing on a tender butter leaf salad ($12) this summer (and it’s made with the original Palace Hotel recipe), but the main dish Dungeness crab Louie ($23) was too deconstructed and cumbersome to eat. Side dishes include a siiiick baked mac and cheese that showed the kitchen really understands how you want mac and cheese: with the golden, baked, cheesy layer on top. So wrong. Because hey, that’s the stuff. (And with the smoked olive oil, extra tasty.) But in my book, the sweeping $8 price for all sides doesn’t jive for the broccoli or fries.
Approachable mains continue the hearty and fulfilling theme, like more of those truffle-y braised beef short ribs ($27), to a honking piece of Sonoma pork belly ($24), topped with salt and vinegar chips, which makes me want to make that a standard pairing from here on out. Pork belly and chips. Yes. There’s been much discussion over the buttermilk-brined organic fried chicken ($22)—both times I have found it juicy, with a not-too-thick batter that adhered well. I like the herbaceous quality of it, with rosemary, sage, thyme… I was calling it French country chicken.
On one visit I took on the Wayfare Burger “Le Grand” ($18), and you know I had them put the Petaluma egg on it ($2). I was impressed how well the brioche bun held up, all the way to the end; the too-big slices of roasted onion proved to be the sloppiest part. The grind on the grass fed beef (which uses four cuts) had good texture—if a bit underseasoned—but the Mt. Tam melted perfectly over the on-point medium rare patty. Smoked bacon, check. It could have used a slight acidic sauce for me, (yeah, ketchup!)—the sliced pickles didn’t provide enough bite. But in the words of Jules in Pulp Fiction, “Mmm-mmmm. That is a tasty burger.”
I know these are a lot of meaty dishes I have mentioned, but the menu is extensive enough so a vegetarian won’t starve here, and the kitchen is happy to accommodate vegans.
I found the desserts (all $9) too sweet (ow, my teeth), but I did enjoy the subtler charms of the peach pie at the end of the season, big enough for three people to share. The house cocktails didn’t particularly wow me, and your glasses of wine on the California-centric list can add up quickly if you’re not paying attention (hic). The place has been consistently slammed (it’s a hot ticket), and the kitchen can get pretty weeded (I’ve experienced some long lags in between courses). But service is attentive and in spite of the busy-ness, you still feel attended to. Especially when the complimentary and warm popover lands on your plate—it’ll keep you plenty distracted (snarf snarf). Another nice feature is the all-day menu, served daily, so the next time the need to correct a crap day with some oysters on the half shell and poutine strikes, I don’t have to fret if it’s 3pm on a Sunday.
Addendum: a reader brought up the noise level in Wayfare Tavern. True, it’s pretty loud. I have found the booths and corner tables will provide a manageable volume, so request those quieter tables if you need a more modulated noise level.