THE SCENE: Mid-February’s onslaught of the frozen white stuff made for a string of quiet nights at downtown West Chester’s youth-oriented, contemporary-leaning Side Bar & Restaurant. Not that the place isn’t made for crowds. Its exposed brick and stone, earthy hues on the walls, worn wood floors and trio of spacious bars (the third is on the second floor) make this a warm and inviting place for patrons of all ages.
There’s ample dining space on both floors, but it’s certainly quieter upstairs (try the table by the big bay window). A bulk of the seating is two- and four-tops dressed in black linens.
Entertainment includes eight flat-screen TVs, and live music or DJ after 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Thursdays, it’s DJ Tommy C until 2 a.m. So if you’re looking for a party, you could do worse.
Sundays are more family-oriented at Side Bar, with a brunch menu that’s full of kid appeal. What’s not to love about s’mores pancakes made with chocolate chips, graham crackers and Fluff? But the menu is still grown-up enough for moms and dads to feel like they’re stepping out a bit, too.
Sidewalk seating is available during the spring and summer, and it’s a sure bet you’ll be waiting awhile for those coveted tables. For a more subdued experience downstairs, the room to the left of the stairway is where you want to be.
THE EXPERIENCE: On both of my visits, service was as friendly as it comes, with a sincere need-to-please vibe coming from both the bar and waitstaff.
Still, one would assume that when the place is jumping, the experience would be a whole lot different. And if you’re a college undergrad, graduate student or young professional, that energetic, see-and-be-seen vibe is probably exactly what you’re looking for.
THE FOOD: Though the menu is satisfying, there’s little sense that chefs Dave Young (Alberto’s) and Blaise Labik (Spence Café) are striving for something unique—something their past gigs have proven they’re capable of.
I had the seared ahi appetizer—a nice portion and a fairly good cut prepared to an enticing magenta shade. The portions of seaweed slaw and sweet-and-sour sauce were in perfect proportion to the tuna and had a nice little kick. We also found culinary joy in a heaping bowl of Mussels Mexicana, which were plumper than I’ve had in a while and embellished with a zesty combination of smoky chorizo, tomato, garlic, lime, cilantro, jalapeño, tequila and Corona beer.
I followed up the tuna with a plate of tender sliced short ribs. There was no real smoky flavor profile, but the meat was well cooked with salt and pepper (often all that a quality cut of meat needs), and not overly sauced.
The seafood risotto with lobster, peas, fresh herbs, crispy prosciutto and seared scallops promised a lot but fell short on the amount of seafood. For the $20 price tag, I’d skip the lobster and beef up the portion of scallops. The risotto was a hit, though—creamy, cheesy and al dente without being starchy or undercooked.
A recent lunch visit featured a well-prepared piece of blackened mahi-mahi that delivered a good dose of Cajun heat. A side of cold sweet potato salad with crunchy bits of red bell pepper, onion and flat-leaf parsley was a perfectly matched plate mate for the smoky fish. A bit of béarnaise sauce brought the sweet and savory combination together.
Side Bar’s late-night menu includes the cleverly conceived French toast with spicy sausage, smoked mozzarella and maple syrup. The creamy, calorie-packed lobster mac and cheese is sadly available only as a lunch or dinner special.
The eggs Benedict—with its “like buttah” hunk of filet—also deserves raves, as do the take-the-sting-out-of-your-hangover Bloody Marys. We didn’t have any wine on either visit, but the international list averages about $30-$35 per bottle with by-the-glass prices hovering around $7.
THE SKINNY: For 20-plus years, the two-story building that houses the Side Bar was home to Vincent’s, a well-known jazz and blues hotspot with a pricey, somewhat staid menu. New owners Justin Dougherty, Adam Wetzel and Kevin Barry have wisely chosen to go in a different direction, with more reasonable pricing, an approachable menu and first-floor bars great for kicking back with the younger crowd.
Still, I wouldn’t write off the possibility of grander things from this young kitchen—and the potential for a more sophisticated dining experience. A few funky pieces of art, edgier floral splashes and classier tableware would make a big difference on the second floor, which really could exist as its own entity.
Upstairs at Side Bar would also be the perfect place for a more innovative and complex menu to better match the palates of diners who are seeking a more polished experience. That alone could propel this great bones of a restaurant into an integral part of West Chester’s dining scene.
SIDE BAR & RESTAURANT
Location: 10 E. Gay St., West Chester; (610) 429-8297, sidebarandrestaurant.com
Cuisine: American comfort fare.
Cost: College students can afford it, and so can you.
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Sunday.
Extras: Drink specials; DJ and live music on weekends.