American Tap Room recently opened its doors in Bethesda, and we went on Sunday to check it out after much anticipation… Sadly, I was not impressed – and left feeling oddly nostalgic for what this place COULD be.
Let me start with what worked. The decor is nice and feels modern but cozy at the same time. The large granite bar is inviting, and surrounded by an impressive array of TVs in varying sizes. There are three cozy seating areas for dining – one doubles as a private dining room, and you can also sit at a counter with a nice view of the partially open kitchen.
On Sundays, live music is played for the brunch crowd – but be warned – the music competes with the sound on the early football games!
The restaurant takes advantage of some cool technology. As you may already know – I am a fan of the Dyson hand dryers which are featured in the restrooms – but the coolest innovation can be seen when you open a menu. The menus are backlit and easy to read in even the darkest dining room. Upon opening, diffuse light shines through a clear plastic sheet on which the menu is printed… It kind of reminded me of the material that teachers would use with the overhead projector. I love this menu innovation, and hope that more restaurants adopt the technology!
Because of the decor (and the cool menus!) I was happily anticipating the rest of our meal. Mr. Food Nerd and I settled in at the bar – waiting for the Redskins game to start. Things started to go downhill fast as we opened the beer menu – I was immediately disappointed in the selection. I had imagined a robust list featuring various american microbrews, seasonal special draughts, and a few international heavy hitters, but sadly this was not the case. American Tap Room’s beer list is dominated by “Big Beer” (read Bud & Miller/Coors), major European standards and some of the most prolific “microbrews” (good beers like Sierra and Sam Adams).
Before you start defending the chain by bringing up the Montgomery County monopoly on beer and wine distribution – let me stop you by saying that there are several other restaurants in the immediate area who are able to get rare, interesting and new beers onto their menus – availability from the county is not the issue. I will say that the Tap Room’s prices are good for all the beers, and you can choose from two sizes of draughts (Large please!!).
The bartenders were slow to take orders, slower to bring drinks, unorganized with the tabs, and way more interested in chatting with each other than filling orders or greeting guests. I only saw the manager as he swept past and removed the menu I was not finished using, and when I ventured up to the front to retrieve it, the hostess was borderline rude about returning it!
I would have been able to overlook the pedestrian beer list and the ambivalent service if the food was really great, but it was not.
We started with appetizers – the Phoenix Wings and the Shrimp with Hummus. The southwest inspired wings were served with very nice crudités and thoughtfully presented (so often wings and celery are just thrown on a plate!). They seemed to be more of a naked wing – lightly floured instead of heavily battered or breaded, and lightly sauced AND dry rubbed. The flavor was pleasant with notes of what I believe to be smoked paprika adding an interesting component to the standard offering. Unfortunately, the wings were not crispy in any way, which would have made them immensely more enjoyable. The highlight of the day, the Shrimp and Hummus was quite good, but like the wings – lacking. Three large, nicely spiced shrimp came served on top of a large dollop of yummy hummus, tomatoes and cucumbers were added to the plate in an artful manner, and the entire dish was drizzled in some sort of orange oil. I could have done without the oil, and with some sort of bread or cracker to scoop up the rest of the hummus – this is not a finger food app you may expect.
For my entrée, I got the corned beef sandwich with mustard onions (and fries). It was ok – the bread was crisply grilled and the flavors were nice, but the corned beef was tough and a bit chewy, not what I was hoping for. The french fries seemed to have come in frozen and just finished in the fryer. Mr. Food Nerd was not thrilled with his burger either, likening it to one he could have eaten at any large chain. The burger too had a distinctly pre-made feel as well – like the patty and bun were not made on premises. I would have inquired if ANY of the ingredients on either of our entree plates were made from scratch, had I been able to get the attention of an employee long enough to ask.
If they wanted to – the American Tap Room in Bethesda could be great – but it will take some wholesale changes. My wish would be for the Beer Menu to be overhauled, banishing the Bud/Miller types to the bottom of the list and featuring a wide array of American Craft Beers instead. I wish that the food was more thoughtfully prepared – from scratch – using fresh ingredients – doing away with the *presumably* premade items. I wish the staff were more interested in the customers experience than their late night escapades. Until then, I’ll pass.