Step inside Nye Park Tavern, and you’ll be hard pressed to believe that, less than a year ago, it was operating as Papa Jake’s—a popular tavern known for its deep-fried pub grub and distinctly divey atmosphere. Since purchasing the business, owner Mark Hutchinson—who also has a hand in Hutch’s, Tempo, and Remington Tavern—has thoroughly sterilized the interior. What was once dark is now light soaked, thanks to a bank of uncovered, east-facing windows. Booths that previously cramped the space have been removed. And every wall received a fresh coat of blue-gray paint that handsomely contrasts with the dark woodwork of the centrally situated bar.
At the same time, you get the sense that the renovation is not quite complete. Where there could be artwork, the walls are blank. Where there could be flowers to add height or texture to the environment, tabletops are bare. Where the mood could be set by interesting lighting fixtures or a stunning back bar, these elements are basic.That is to say, Nye Park Tavern is generically pleasant but lacking in character.
A similar sentiment could be expressed about my two dining experiences there, both of which were perfectly palatable but not distinctive. The menu of salads, bar apps, tavern fare, and sandwiches boasts many of the usual suspects (burgers, chicken wings, fish fry, steak in the grass), along with a few surprises (Moroccan-spiced shrimp salad, “westside” spareribs, BBQ pork-filled potato skins).There are also daily chalkboard specials featuring more elevated and seasonal fare. On my most recent trip, that meant soft shell crab, among other offerings.
That evening though, we bypassed the crab in favor of an appetizer of steamed mussels ($13.50), and we were pleased to receive a heaping pile of fresh, plump bivalves. But the parsley, shallot, and white wine broth they were bathing in needed to be consumed in tandem with the briny liquor that pooled in the jet black shells to really make an impression. On its own, the broth had the taste and mouth-coating effect of drawn butter—which isn’t to say it was bad, just uncompelling.
As an entrée, we opted for the chef’s daily salmon preparation—in this case, Cajun-spiced and topped with a sweet orange and garlic mojo compound butter. The perfectly cooked salmon retained the proper amount of translucency, and it was nothing short of spectacularly tender. Without even the slightest hint of cayenne heat, it failed to live up to its Cajun description, but that fact didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the dish. The only definitive letdown was the accompanying starch—boiled new potatoes.
Let me digress to say that no restaurant side dish disappoints me more than plain, boiled potatoes. At best, they are inoffensive; at worst, they drag down an entree with their starchy, under-salted tedium. But never once have they improved a dish. They are commodity graduation party food—something you mindlessly stick between the baked ziti and chicken Marsala. A 24 dollar entree like my perfectly cooked salmon deserved better.
Our second entrée didn’t trigger for me any deep-seated, potato-related fury, thank heavens. The Southern-inspired cornbread macaroni and cheese ($14.50) was a generous portion of elbow pasta in a silky mornay sauce, artfully topped with cornbread crumbles, fresh scallions, and bell peppers. Unfortunately, a few points of execution fell short of the expectations set by the appealing presentation. The cornbread crumbles were not as crunchy as I wanted them to be, the pasta not as firm or high quality, and the sauce not as decadently cheesy as one would expect (hope?) from a dish that pays homage to the artery-clogging cuisine of our brethren below the Mason-Dixon. I also found myself wanting for a bottle of hot sauce to offset the corny sweetness. But overall the dish was serviceable and warranting of multiple forkfuls.
For dessert, we polished off a slice of straightforward Boston cream pie ($8). The cake itself was a tad dry and the custard lacking in real vanilla flavor, but a thick slick of dense chocolate icing kept us digging in for more.
On a previous trip, peppercorn onion rings ($6.50) seemed pricey for the serving size, and weren’t as deeply golden as I like my fried stuff. A Cape Cod reuben, featuring fried haddock on rye with Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Thousand Island dressing, was well executed, but it left me thinking that there is a good reason corned beef is the traditional protein in this classic deli sandwich. It became clear a few bites in that salty, assertively seasoned meat is better suited to the sweet and tangy reuben condiments than a mild fish like haddock, which was overwhelmed by the competing flavors. My dining companion thoroughly enjoyed his tavern burger ($13.95) though, and I have since heard reports from other friends that the burger may well be the way to go.
I walked away from both of my Nye Park Tavern dining experiences thinking that my meals, like the decor, were superficially pleasant enough but not memorable. Out of six dishes sampled, there wasn’t one that offended, but there is also not one I am compelled to order again. With one of the most successful restaurateurs in the area at its helm, and given the prices it’s charging, that’s a little hard to swallow.
NYE Park Tavern | 1672 Elmwood Avenue | Buffalo, NY | (716) 240-9747 | Facebook