Dean Martin had a recipe for “Martin Burgers” that was perfect in its simplicity. Heat a frying pan and sprinkle the bottom with salt. Shape a pound of ground beef into four patties and grill them on medium-high heat, four minutes per side. Pour chilled bourbon into a chilled shot glass. Serve meat and bourbon on a TV tray.
One could not envision this type of man tucking into seared pork belly with Korean mustard or ordering tuna tataki drizzled in sesame oil. But a New York strip with potatoes and fried eggs, or a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup? Now you’re talking.
This latter direction is the one taken by the Rarebit, a new restaurant on King Street that self-consciously evokes the style of an earlier era. It starts with the name “rarebit” itself, emblazoned on the menu in a sleek, curvy script. There’s no particular theme to the place beyond a general early-1960s vibe, but the paintings evoke aspects of the languid Rat Pack style: greyhounds racing past a dog track tote board, a glimmering blue pool at a desert motor lodge.
A long bar with a white marble top fills the right half of the room, and the stools swivel on fixed poles with padded backs reminiscent of old lunch counters. Those padded backs, the rear wall, and the low divider between bar and dining room are all a pale seafoam green, while the curving benches in the booths are clad in green and black plaid. This, I found myself thinking as I sipped a whiskey sour at the bar, is what places must have looked like in 1963 when they were brand new. It’s a pretty sharp look.
Unfortunately, there are no steaming, cheesy bowls of welsh rarebit on the regular menu, but you can order such modest fare as a bowl of tomato soup ($5) or chicken noodle ($5). Of the sandwich offerings, which includes a grilled cheese ($4), BLT ($6), and chicken club ($8), only the vegan burger ($8), with its sprouts and lemon honey vinaigrette, gives a nod to more contemporary tastes.
The entrées focus on hearty comfort fare, like fish and chips ($14) and country fried steak with buttermilk pepper gravy ($13). A big pork chop ($15) is served on the bone with green beans and a dish of macaroni and cheese on the side, a layer of green tomato relish scattered over the top. The daily blue plate special was beef stroganoff the last time I dropped in.
The chicken and waffles ($11) are a big seller, and it’s easy to see why. The waffle is of the reassuringly round, four-sectioned variety from an old-school iron, and it’s topped with a massive chicken breast in a thick, dark-golden brown batter. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about any one component on the plate, but something magic happens when they unite in a satisfying combination of crisp fried batter and chewy waffle with a sweet syrup blast.
A selection of side dishes ($3.50 each) include spinach sautéed with garlic, onion rings, and a bacon lentil salad. The succotash is served cool, which I wasn’t expecting, and the limas have a firmer texture than I would have expected, too. But, after a few bites, they really started to grow on me, particularly with the bits of sweet sun-dried tomato and the touch of grainy mustard that accented the corn and beans.
There’s mac and cheese, too, and the “mac” in this case is real macaroni noodles, the big fat kind. They’re coated in creamy cheese sauce that’s blissfully devoid of lobster meat and truffle oil, and there are no panko crumbs scattered over the top, either, just a generous, gooey amount of melted cheese — the old fashioned cheddar variety.
The full menu is served from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m., while breakfast is advertised as being served all day. It took a little mental effort for me to twist that around and figure out that, since the Rarebit opens at 11 a.m., the breakfast menu is really the late night menu, which may explain why a patty melt ($7) appears on it alongside huevos rancheros ($8), french toast ($6), and an omelet ($8) filled with tomato, spinach, onion, bacon, and cheddar cheese.
That patty melt ($7) would really hit the spot after midnight: two thin patties between slices of butter-soaked rye toast, pale orange American cheese oozing out the side. Two patties mean twice the sear, and they give a big beefy blast with the first bite and offer a more pleasing texture than just one thick patty would. With the melted cheese and tender sautéed onions, you don’t even need any sauce or ketchup.
You would think that such a self-conscious throwback to the early 1960s would feature martinis and scotches-and-soda. But Brent Sweatman, who headed up the bar at the short-lived Biggie’s Gastropub in Wagener Terrace before bringing his impressive cocktail skills to the Rarebit, went a different direction and created a selection of drinks that span a century and a half of mixology.
Big bowls of citrus fruits adorn the bar, destined for the big juicers, and Sweatman makes his own bitters and sodas, too, including root beer, herbal tonic, and ginger beer. The latter is incorporated into a Moscow Mule ($8), which has quickly become the Rarebit’s signature drink. The bartender adds vodka, limeade, and ice to a snazzy copper mug, then tops it off with a blast of ginger beer straight from a draft tap, accompanied by a hissing pop from the compressor beneath the bar. With a quick toss and a clink of ice cubes, he pours the contents from the first copper mug into another empty one and then back into the original, resulting in a sweet, tangy, foamy drink that’s made all more tempting by the mixing process.
A Sazerac and a Sidecar evoke the era when wets and drys were duking it out over the saloon, while the selection of four juleps — including a deliciously cold and sweet version made with rum, which fueled the original juleps before the rise of whiskey in the South — harkens all the way back to antebellum days.
Such hoary cocktails would make Matthew Weiner and his designers on the Mad Men set howl, but they work fine for me for some reason. Other anachronistic notes seem more off-key amid such a splendidly retro setting. The bartenders wear proper striped oxford shirts, but they’re untucked (though one guy was wearing a tie, which I’m not sure offset the flapping shirttail or just made it more glaring). The housemade sorghum-infused syrup, which is softer and sweeter than the maple variety, is tasty, but it doesn’t fit thematically, a touch of lardcore heirloomism sneaking onto the set.
But they hardly damage the overall effect. Given the hot Upper King location, the plain, wholesome fare at the Rarebit is perhaps most remarkable because it’s so unremarkable, but it seems precisely the right fit for the sharp, highly stylized setting. It’s solid and hearty, but not so ambitious and gussied-up that it demands your undivided attention. I actually like the Rarebit better as the evening merges into night and the crowds close in and the noise gets louder, for such a place needs energy, bustle, and buzz. The food becomes the supporting player for whatever else it is you are doing that evening, not the main entertainment itself, a pleasant means of lining your stomach the night before or nursing your way back to health the day after.
In this day and age, that’s a pretty rare bit to find down on the peninsula. But we seem to be entering an era that’s growing weary of foodie monomania and strange parts of the pig. Will more and more of us start turning our backs on the farm and heading to the big city? If so, the Rarebit may not be so much a throwback to a lost era as a harbinger of things to come.