Food, too -- who knew? 

There's more to Highland Tap than just martinis

There are certain things in life you just don't question: your best friend's advice, that dictum about white after Labor Day. Highland Tap's martinis fall into this category -- icy cold and smooth as silk with just a whiff of vermouth. James Bond would approve. But what about the menu? I confess I'd never actually eaten here, except for the occasional order of onion rings drunkenly devoured at the bar after one too many rounds.

Highland Tap has occupied its cozy subterranean space at the corner of North Highland and Virginia avenues for longer than most locals can remember. The scene hasn't changed much over the years. Most of the action is at the smoky bar, which still packs in prowling twentysomethings elbow-to-elbow on Friday and Saturday nights. The dining room -- with its spacious booths, dim lighting and stone walls -- has always had the feel, to me, of a stately old English pub. Though after all these years, the decor is starting to feel a bit worn-out.

As for the menu, beef takes center stage. Would you expect otherwise from a place that bills itself as a "steak cellar"? An old-fashioned French dip sandwich hit all the right notes, with its crispy baguette and shaved prime rib. If the meat was just a little on the dry side, a quick dunk in the au jus set things right. A giant stack of crunchy, cornmeal-battered onion rings were as good as I remembered from my boozy, post-college bar-hopping days.

French onion soup, on the other hand, needed help. Vidalia onions and a thick blanket of melted mozzarella made for a too-sweet concoction that cried out for something sharp like Gruyere or Emmenthal. A side dish of au gratin potatoes in an asiago cheese sauce were decadently creamy, though I wished the flavor of dried thyme wasn't so overpowering. Certain items on the menu, pork tenderloin and salmon filet in particular, seemed pricey at close to $20 apiece. But steaks did their steep price tags justice. Generous cuts were nicely seasoned and grilled to order.

There's no question that the food takes a backseat to the cocktails at Highland Tap. That's just the curse of being first and foremost a bar. But if one too many martinis have made the staircase that leads back up to street level look intimidating, it's good to know you can fortify yourself with a respectable meal before returning to the cold, cruel world.

Extra Helpings

TEMPT ME WITH TAKEOUT -- If you haven't been by Alon's Bakery on North Highland lately, drop everything and go immediately. They have just reopened a new, larger space with expanded offerings. Now, besides delectable pastries, cookies and artisan breads, Alon's is also carrying artisan cheeses and a whole case of prepared foods. On a recent visit, the fingerling potato salad and chickpea salad with feta were delicious. Alon's also offers an eclectic assortment of wines and high-quality chocolate. Though the selection is smaller, Alon's gives Whole Foods a run for its money in terms of quality and price. Also very cool is that you can place orders on the website. 1394 N. Highland Ave. 404-872-6000.

TRADE-WORTHY TREATS -- The pedestrian brown-bag lunch gets a makeover Sat., Sept. 4, at Whole Foods on Ponce de Leon. To celebrate the start of a new school year, chef Sheri Davis of Dish restaurant will be doing in-store demonstrations of healthy, delicious recipes that kids will actually eat. Demos are free to the public, and will take place from noon-2 p.m. 650 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-853-1681.

START YOUR WEEK OFF RIGHT -- Don't let Mondays drag you down. Stop in at Pura Vida

and play some dominoes, drink $6 mojitos and $5 Bacardi-tinis, and chill out the Latin American way. 656 N. Highland Ave. 404-870-9797.

SOUTHERN COMFORT -- Wisteria celebrates its third anniversary Mon., Sept. 6, with a Southern-style barbecue prepared by chef/owner Jason Hill. Dinner will be served buffet-style and will be paired with microbrewed beers. The dinner runs from 6-10 p.m. and reservations are recommended. The cost is $33.33 per person, plus tax and gratuity. 471 N. Highland Ave. 404-525-3363.

IT'S GREEK TO ME -- In celebration of the Greek harvest, Kyma will host a wine tasting Wed., Sept. 8, from 6-7:30 p.m. Sofia Perpera from All About Greek Wine will share her knowledge of Greek wines and select some of her favorite vintages to sample. The cost of $30 per person includes wine tasting and paired appetizers. 3085 Piedmont Road. 404-262-0702.

WINE WEDNESDAYS -- Head over to the Food Studio on Wed., Sept. 8, for the restaurant's monthly wine tasting. The theme is "Cabernets and Merlots: Washington vs. California." The tasting runs from 5:30-7 p.m. and costs $20 per person (hors d'oeuvres included). Come as you are -- no reservations necessary. Through November, Fifth Group Restaurants (Food Studio, South City Kitchen, La Tavola and Sala) is hosting an ongoing wine series. A Fifth Group Wine Wednesday Passport, which guests receive at the first tasting they attend, will be stamped at each event. Nine stamps earn a complimentary 10th tasting. 887 W. Marietta St., Studio K-102. 404-815-6677.


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