A recent sunny day saw the sidewalk tables at Northwest 5th Avenue and Davis Street overstuffed with bright-eyed diners looking rumpled and satisfied. Light poured through the tall windows at Davis Street Tavern to illuminate a cheerful chattering crowd inside as well, drinking Double Mountain Alpenbrew ($5) and basil martinis ($8). Diners and drinkers have flocked to this window-wrapped Old Town bistro since it opened last year, and both menu and space are split between formal fine dining and top-tier pub offerings. Particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, when the restaurant's "Tavern" front half stays open until 1 am, a convivial atmosphere fairly spills out the door; one gets the sense everyone is laughing and leaning in to clink glasses or swipe a bite from someone else's plate.
This infectious environment makes it hard to muster the will to venture back—through original exposed brick circa 1905, past the gleaming wood-grain zigzag of the bar—to the dimmer, calmer formal dining room. It's also hard to abandon the front room's affordable "Tavern Menu," on which dishes hardly break a sawbuck. Oysters, bedded in a seaweed-strewn bowl of crushed ice, come dressed with cucumber and pickled shallot, punctuated with glossy orange steelhead roe ($10). A jumble of shoestring fries nestle against a lamb burger layered with flavors of the Mediterranean: mint, yogurt, pine nuts, feta and dried apricots ($11). And the odd Thai influence, though incongruous with the rest of the Euro-Northwest menu, doesn't detract from an ample pile of mussels, peeking through a coconut milk broth scented with galangal and kaffir lime ($9).
If you make it through the tavern's charismatic gantlet to the dining room, you'll find heavy wood and lush booths warmly lit by cast-iron chandeliers. This sturdy elegance is something the room shares with the dinner menu. The rack of lamb ($28), while not too innovative, is deftly executed, crisp at the edges and a deep pink in the center, paired with lush lamb risotto; fresh mint lends the jus a crisp edge. And the seared chicken is a decadent take on a comfort-food classic, with rich mac 'n' cheese and broccolini, the dish's sole foray into flora, spiked with pancetta ($19). Still, the dining room's conventional appeal is no match for a tour of tavern-side small plates. That's no knock to the kitchen, just a compliment to the tavern.
Davis Street Tavern, 500 NW Davis St., 505-5050, davisstreettavern.com. Lunch and dinner 11:30 am-11 pm Monday-Thursday; lunch, dinner and late night 11:30 am-1 am Friday; dinner and late night 4 pm-1 am Saturday. $$-$$$ Moderate-expensive.