For my contribution, I elected to review Rosie’s Tavern. Rosie’s has the distinction of being the first place I ate at after moving to Portland. My sister—who won’t mind me telling you that she’s not a very adventurous eater—had helped me move and was living with me at the time. After a long day of unpacking, we found ourselves scavenging for dinner in the Old Port. Our stomachs growling, made our way through up and down Exchange Street, perusing the menus of various establishments. Nothing was grabbing her, so we resolved to check out Fore Street and if nothing there caught her eye, we’d resort to Papa John’s (blech!) or McDonald’s (double blech!).
That’s when, thankfully, we found Rosie’s. We wandered inside and asked to see a menu. Spotting the various offerings involving pizza, calzones and chicken fingers, my sister gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up and we sat down for diner. Rosie’s was such a hit with her (if not me) that it became our de facto dining spot whenever we’d get together for a meal downtown.
My sister moved out-of-state about six months later, and I found myself visiting Rosie’s less often. Eventually, my patronage tapered off altogether. This shouldn’t be taken as an indictment against the establishment. Rather, its more of a testament to the variety and quantity of dining options available to us in this city.
With my last visit almost three years behind me, I was eager to return to Rosie’s to see what, if anything, had changed about the place. And so, last week, after a couple of afternoon baseball games, I returned there for a late afternoon lunch/early dinner.
I often hear Rosie’s referred to as a “dive” but I’d qualify it more as a neighborhood bar. The building is divided into two main rooms: a bar with a few small tables and a dining area. The decor in the dining room is pretty consistent with what you’d find at most neighborhood taverns. The brick walls are adorned with posters, license plates and a couple of mirrors. A pair of dartboards occupy one corner of the room. Various dining tables are stocked with benches and mismatched chairs. A functioning popcorn machine sits near the entrance of the room, allowing patrons to help themselves to a basket of popcorn. All-and-all, the atmosphere is casual, cozy and relaxed.
Maybe a bit too relaxed, in some ways. During my visit, I was one of just six patrons in the entire restaurant (including the bar area). Despite making eye contact with a couple of employees on my way into the dining room, I found that nobody came in to provide me with a menu or take a drink order. After a ten minute wait, I finally got up from my table and went to the bar and asked about the menus. The bartender apologized and explained that, while she had seen me come in, she thought I was in the bathroom. I assured her that it wasn’t a big deal, and was provided a menu and asked what I might like to drink. I returned to the table and, a minute later, the bartender came over with my drink. She explained that someone would be in to take my order in just a moment, but once again, several minutes passed with no one arriving. Finally, after another long wait, I was about to get up from the table again when the bartender returned and asked if anyone had taken my order. I replied that no one had, at which point she took the order herself.
Rosie’s menu contains a few different burgers. There is just a standard hamburger which, presumably, patrons can customize to their liking. And then there is the barbecue bacon cheeseburger, which looks to be Rosie’s signature burger. Also on the menu (a new addition, I’d wager) is a Kobe beef burger for $12.95. I was tempted by the Kobe burger, but opted for the more traditional barbecue bacon cheeseburger instead. Offered my choice of cheeses, I asked for blue cheese, a selection which I regretted the moment the words came out of my mouth. I had forgotten about the barbecue sauce on the burger, and was concerned as to how it would pair with blue cheese. Alas, not wanting to belabor the ordering process any further, I stuck with my guns and resolved to make do with whatever emerged from the kitchen. In addition to the burger, I ordered fried ravioli with marinara dipping sauce as an appetizer.
Fortunately, the quality of the service improved from that point on. My fried ravioli arrived at my table in just a few minutes. They arrived plenty hot and crisp, but didn’t offer much along the way of flavor. The ricotta cheese stuffed inside was unremarkable and the marinara sauce was kind of bland. I detected a little bit of spiciness in the deep fried coating, but it wasn’t enough to make the dish compelling in any way. I suppose that had I indulged in three or four beers first, the fried ravioli might seem a little more interesting. But otherwise, I probably wouldn’t bother to order them again.
The burger fared much better. Delivered to the table in a red, paper-lined basket by a member of the kitchen staff, I was initially a little bit concerned that I was in for a repeat of my recent experience at The Frog and Turtle. I could find no evidence of cheese or barbecue sauce. When I asked about this, she explained that the cheese was actually inside of the burger and that she had forgotten the barbecue sauce. She brought it over to me a moment later in a separate dish.
I’ll confess that I’m not a big fan of “stuffed” burgers. Too often, I’ve ordered burgers stuffed with cheese, mushrooms or other toppings, only to bite into them and discover a paltry amount of the topping inside. (One such experience at a local brick oven eatery that shall-not-be-named had me cutting into a supposedly stuffed burger and discovering a single, pathetic-looking piece of mushroom inside of it.) Fortunately, this was not an issue with Rosie’s burger. I cut the burger in half to reveal a heaping pocket of blue cheese inside. The burger bisection also showed that the burger had been cooked perfectly, with just the right amount of pink inside. (After having a number of overcooked burgers in recent weeks, I’ve stopped ordering them “rare,” “medium rare” or “medium” and have instead simply told my waiters and waitresses that I’d like it to be warm and pink in the center. For the most part, this strategy seems to be working.)
The upside of the kitchen forgetting the barbecue sauce was that I wasn’t beholden to having it on my sandwich. I sampled half of the burger with the tangy sauce and the other half without it. Both were good, but I think I slightly preferred the half without any condiments. The absence of the sauce really allowed the blue cheese—the undisputed star of the show—to shine through. I loved how the cheese, with its sharp, salty bite, interacted with the meat in the burger, especially the rare center. I wonder if this is due at least in part to the inside-out nature of the burger/cheese dynamic, and if so, perhaps it is cause for me to be a little less skeptical about “stuffed” burgers in the future.
I could take-or-leave the bun, which was a little dry but well-suited to the task of housing the juicy burger. Likewise, the sad-looking half-strips of bacon which didn’t add much in terms of taste, texture or appearance.
Aside from the blue cheese, I was pleasantly surprised by the thick steak fries that were served with the burger. Crispy, golden and nicely salted, they stayed hot through the entire meal. I suspect that they came out of a freezer somewhere, but I won’t hold this against anyone. Its easy to take french fries for granted, but I’ve had too many meals lately that were brought down lately by poorly cooked french fries. Its nice to see someone who knows how to work a fryer.
So, will I wait another three years to visit Rosie’s Tavern? Definitely not. The delicious blue cheese stuffed burger and surprising steak fries are enough to warrant a repeat visit all on their own. Plus, there’s that Kobe beef burger that needs trying out. I’d love to see Rosie’s make some improvements to the bacon and the bun, but these shortcomings are not a deal-breaker. Ditto on the service issues. While I wouldn’t want this to become the norm, I can appreciate the fact that everyone has an off day every now and again.
MY RATING: 3.5 MOONS (out of 5)