My first time to Tender Bar + Kitchen in Lawrenceville was this Friday during Summer Restaurant Week. There were SO many amazing options on this lineup, but when I saw that Tender’s Restaurant Week offering was a burger and a cocktail for $14, (I think I was craving a burger while I was deciding), I chose to make reservations here for Friday at 6. (The Open Table app and website are my best friends.)
Upon walking in, we were greeted by the hostess, who was bright and very friendly, and we were immediately ushered to our table, and presented with the drink, Restaurant Week food options, and Special Offerings menus. This cocktail list was like 5 pages long. (Ok, maybe 2. But I am not exactly a cocktail connoisseur, and all of these pages were filled with words I didn’t understand, and I felt intimidated.) We were sitting for maybe 5 minutes or so before our waiter appeared. I really am a big proponent of helpful/down-to-earth service, and I have to say.. I wasn’t fully impressed by that here. I have heard from so many people/reviews that Tender is known for it’s impressive and delicious craft cocktails and their “speakeasy”/loungey atmosphere. When a bar or restaurant has that much of a defined specialty, I kind of except their service to match. Without really being greeted, our server casually asked if we “knew what we wanted.” What I wanted to say was, “I don’t even know what any of these words are, besides gin and tequila.” But it seemed he was disengaged with our experience, and I went with the Tiki Drink, Saturn: ($7 during RW, regularly $10) gin, passionfruit, orgeat(???), falernum(???), lemon. Normally, I google words I don’t recognize so I am educated about what I’m ordering, but when I felt like I was being asked if I wanted a Coke at Eat n’ Park, I took a swing and went with a liquor I recognized. This set the tone for what I felt to be a slightly disjointed experience, and leads me to my thoughts on the decor.
The first thing I noticed was the impressively beautiful, sweeping bar, and rows and rows and rows of perfectly placed liquor bottles. Across from the main attraction is a line of 2 top tables, and at the front, a loungey arrangement of over-stuffed couches and low tables. This space has extremely high ceilings and HUGEEE windows draped with metallicy/gold ceiling-to-floor drapes. And the walls are covered with a mauve and gold patterned wallpaper. We were there at 6:00, so the bright afternoon sunlight was streaming in through the windows, as all of the drapes were pushed aside. My feelings on this are that if this bar is meant to feel like an intimate, unique lounge, reminiscent of a past era.. it should at all times. Maybe if the drapes were closed, and our lighting source was from the overhead fixtures, I might have felt like we got the full Tender experience. But with the harsh daytime light and decor.. it kind of felt like a hotel lobby.
So, our drinks arrive after we were able to watch the bartenders expertly craft them. It is very obvious how much attention and time they put into their concoctions. Sadly, I really didn’t like mine. I’ve really been into gin lately, hence my order, but this really just tasted like a sugary slushy. It was served in a Tiki glass, which was cute and funny, with shaved ice and a banana leaf garnish. From everything I’ve heard about this place, I expected the punch of a strong drink, but it was SO sugary.. it left that lollipop-esque coating on my teeth. Now, I take most of this on myself, as I really am an uneducated cocktail drinker. So I would definitely like to go back and choose something different.
Now for the food!! I ordered the Tender Burger ($7 during RW, regularly $11): white cheddar, arugula, white onions, pub sauce, and added bacon for $1), and Tim ordered the Aresenal burger ($7 during RW, regularly $11): dill pickled fennel, charred tomato ketchup, Irish porter cheddar and mixed greens.) When they arrived (after a standard wait time) we were served each other’s burgers. But then we realized his burger had my bacon on it, so we had to switch that, too. No big deal, but we were ALSO confused about our cheese. My menu-described “white cheddar” was REALLY YELLOW, and his Irish porter cheddar was REALLY WHITE. I don’t know too much about cheese, but I do know that the difference between white and yellow cheddar is only a coloring additive that comes from a plant extract called annato. So, it really didn’t matter to us, but it felt us scratching our heads a bit. We felt like our burgers were all mixed up. All confusion aside (I realize how nitpicky I’m being), we dug in and they were truly DELICIOUS burgers.
The meat was tender (I ordered mine medium), the bacon was perfectly cooked (chewy but crispy on the edges just how I like it) and the white onions and arugula were the perfect added zing and peppery freshness, respectively. Also, I was in LOVE with the buttery, toasted bun. This is one of my favorite burger attributes. My stance on the importance of a great bun is steadfastly this: a sandwich is truly nothing without great bread. And this was great bread, with a great, buttery crunch. One negative: The subheading of the burger menu reads: “choice of any 1/3 lb. burger”. Now, I kind of think advertising the weight of the meat patty is a bit Dairy Queenish (no offense to DQ – I worked there for 4 years in high school and it’s still one of my favorites).. but in addition to this, I had enough empty-bun-bites to notice. So whether the bun be a little smaller, or the burger be a little larger, I did feel there was a bit of an uneven bun-to-burger ratio. And let it be noted that I’m only being this nitpicky because I wanted as many bites of this burger as possible ; I enjoyed every bit of this perfectly cooked masterpiece.
In addition to our burgers, we each added “Skins” to our order ($3). There was no description of these on the Restaurant Week menu, but I will tell you that they were light, flat, deliciously crunchy golden fries, served with sprinkled parmesan and scallions. Also with my skins was a side of, what I presume to be, Truffle Aioli, even though it was not named on the menu, and was strangely missing from my boyfriend’s plate. Despite this, we happily ate this delicious meal, shared the aioli, and were very VERY pleased with our food. Seriously so good.
So, overall, I really enjoyed my food, and would be curious to come back for another crack at my cocktail ordering skills. I also am intrigued by the idea of returning for an after-dark reservation slot.. because the combination of just-ok service and lack of ambiance due to the daytime harsh lighting, we really didn’t feel like staying for another round, even though the dining room was far from packed at the end of our meal. But I can definitely see how a 10:00 night cap with a date would feel MUCH sexier and in line with the style they are going for.
In summary, I really do think our experience here was skewed by the time of day we made our resie. Although, I also think that time of day should not have that much of an effect on a dining experience. But the food was great, and I’d definitely like to go back and try again. Tender left me wanting more.
Food: 4 Drink: 2
Price: 4 (Restaurant Week Prices)
Overall experience: 3
A few nuggets of advice:
- I assume that on a regular Friday night, not during Restaurant Week, this spot would get crowded. So, if you ARE planning on a sit-down meal, make a reservation! They are on OpenTable.
- For your first time here, I definitely recommend an after-dark arrival time for the full Tender experience.
- Ask your server for cocktail recommendations. I, sadly, did not.. and definitely regret it.
- The burgers really are great. A diner next to me got the scallops entrée that also looked awesome. So I definitely have confidence that their Executive Chef, Brian Little, knows what he’s doing in the kitchen.
- Tender offers live music every Tuesday and Thursday from 8-11, private event hosting, as well as cocktail education/bartending classes. I really would like to explore this place further.
Tender Bar + Kitchen
4300 Butler Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15201