That bar's menu, if you can call it that, was limited to stuff that could be yanked out of the freezer and either tossed into the snarling fryer or thawed in the microwave and then slapped on the grill. Cheeseburgers, onion rings, cream-cheese-filled pepper poppers, tater tots and thickly breaded fried mushrooms. That was bar food. Salty, fatty foods that tasted good with cold beer and Long Island iced teas.
Lately, though, I've had some excellent meals at places that aren't really restaurants in the traditional sense they're bars with kitchens and decent menus. You might say that bar fare has taken a 180-degree turn from those primitive days of 'shrooms and gloom. The real revolution in bar food actually dates all the way back to the swinging 1960s, when "singles bars" such as T.G.I. Friday's in the days before it did its own 180 and became family-friendly set the tone for hundreds of imitators by offer- ing potent cocktails and elaborate menus. Instead of just burgers, these hip and happening bars offered a wide array of dishes that included salads and quiche, items that had rarely been seen at the neighborhood pub.
Somewhere along the way, those sexy singles concepts morphed into regular restaurants. Lately, bar food has become even more sophisticated, thanks to the whole tapas trend the Spanish custom of ordering wine and cocktails accompanied by small appetizer plates that can be shared as a light snack or combined to create a meal.
That's the idea behind One80. If you're walking past the big picture windows facing Westport Road, it looks like any upscale watering hole. But owners James Westphal, Mark Kelpe and Marty Collins, who also operate McCoy's Public House across the street, put as much emphasis on the culinary side of the operation as the booze biz. Their first smart move was to bring in Sean Leventhal as executive chef, because he's put together a tasty mix of familiar bistro fare (steak and frites, French onion soup, steamed mussels) with offbeat innovations such as goat-cheese truffles and prosciutto-wrapped dates stuffed with almonds.
I missed out on the dates (in every sense of that word, alas), but only because I was too engaged sampling so many other dishes on One80's concise but interesting menu. Leventhal offers fewer than 30 items, but almost all of them taste as alluring as their descriptions on paper, which isn't always the case in even the slickest of saloons.
After watching some morbid British comedy at the Tivoli, we walked straight into One80 without knowing a thing about it. The menu told me everything. We started with an excellent creamy white-bean hummus and a quartet of fat wonton squares fried to crispy perfection and stuffed with lobster and crabmeat. It was the kind of post-cinema snack that's memorable enough to make one forget a dreary movie.
I loved the food but found the décor to be disturbingly stark. My friend Patrick seemed mesmerized by the dining room's focal points: dark wood floors, uncloaked tables, skinny amber lights over the bar, and a modular assemblage of shiny metallic convex lenses above the banquette at the rear of the restaurant. He loved every detail, from the clock displaying the wrong time on the awning over the front entrance (we're not sure whether it was supposed to work or was a contrived eccentricity) to the oversized frosted-acrylic flowerpots, illuminated from within, positioned in the display windows on the Pennsylvania Street side of the building.