McCabe's reboot succeeds
Calling all fans: McCabe's (3845 Falls Road,  467-1000) is back and looking very much business as usual. The Hampden taproom still boasts the same exposed brick walls and the same long wood bar. They're still a dozen or so tables packed so snugly into the narrow dining room that you can't help but overhear conversations, and the clientele still skews to the over-50 crowd. You can still find crab cakes and burgers on the menu and, yes, the beer, including Dogfish Head IPA and a fine Guinness, is still cold.
But although all appearances suggest that no time has passed between the restaurant's closing in February 2009 and its reopening in April 2010 by Patrick Ito (formerly of Copra), things here aren't quite what they used to be, as the woman sitting next to me at the bar aptly pointed out.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"Some people are saying [read: complaining] that it's not the old McCabe's," she said perched on a stool over a plate of crab cakes and french fries. "Well it's not the old McCabe's. It's the new McCabe's--and the crab cakes and coleslaw are excellent."
She's right on both counts. What was always appealing about McCabe's--reasonably priced better-than-bar-food--remains, it's just been refined and slightly modernized. This means that a generously, juicy cheeseburger ($11) is made from Springfield Farms beef, rolls and bread are from Stone Mill Bakery, and fries are hand cut.
If you spend any time at the bar, you'll get the chance to nosh popcorn sprinkled with house-mixed salts blended with Old Bay seasoning or chili-lime, which you can wash down with a specialty cocktail, such as the watermelon mojito ($10). No DeKuyper Watermelon Pucker Schnapps here, this baby runs on house-made lime-basil syrup, muddled lime, a slug of golden rum that has spent several days in the belly of a watermelon, plus a chunk or two of that nicely marinated watermelon itself. Granted, you have to be a fan of watermelon to like this, but it's pretty refreshing, and, as the bartender pointed out, "pure." "No corn syrups or anything artificial in it," she explained. "Just natural ingredients."
Which doesn't mean McCabe's has gone granola or gotten preachy or hip or too expensive or any of the other accusations that often get thrown at neighborhood restaurants that try to step it up a notch. If anything, the place is a little cleaner and the food a little better.
Like those crab cakes ($24), which are mustard-tinged and full of lump meat. Or the brioche-style bun that makes a pretty swell burger even better. Shrimp and grits appear to be gaining a foothold in restaurants around town, and while purists might quibble over the authenticity of McCabe's version, the dish ($20) pleases with a spicy dose of shrimp and crumbled andouille sausage in a lightly creamy sauce.
The night we dined, the restaurant was also offering a homey trio of specials: chicken pot pie, a steak roulade stuffed with beet greens, and some messily good baby back ribs served with a mustard-based barbecue sauce ($26 for full rack). But the hands down favorite on our table was the bowl of French onion soup ($5), something none of us would have considered ordering on a hot night if the scent from the bowls on the table next to us hadn't been so tempting. In most cases, the draw of this soup is usually the gooey grilled cheese that floats on the surface of the bowl, but McCabe's broth boasts a deep, beefy richness I haven't experienced much of elsewhere. It is excellent, even in 90-degree weather.
If I have one complaint, it's that the kitchen is a little heavy-handed with the salt shaker (and I'm not usually one to be sensitive about this sort of thing). I also think the bread pudding ($6), made with leftover brioche buns like a thrifty housewife, would improve by following the example of the mojito and using pure flavors rather than artificial flavorings or extracts.
McCabe's takes reservations only for parties of five or more, but based on our experience, tends to empty out around 8 p.m. mid-week. Plan accordingly, and try the soup.