We don't want to get a rep as The Girl Who Hates Gastropubs (one of the lesser Stieg Larsson novels), but with so many new restaurants using the term to tart up overpriced, mediocre food, we're not going to fight it. Culver City is Ground Zero for this precise sort of gentrification: the neighborhood restaurant, straining for some sort of gourmet status.
Owned by the guys who run nearby Rush Street, City Tavern opened in early April with much ballyhooed tableside beer taps. Attached to only a handful of booths running along the south wall, they're stocked with decent, middle-of-the-road brews, but don't let that distract you from the bar's very well curated beer list, most of which can be sampled in small, $3-4 pours. Did you order some obscure porter only to discover it tastes like someone ashed into your beer? Don't worry, you're not committed to a full pint.
City Tavern has nearly two dozen beers on tap. Somewhere between North Coast Brewing's crisp La Merle and Cismontane's bitter and fruity Citizen, you ought to find something to satisfy any beer freak's palate. A dozen large format bottles (Trappist beers, Paulaner's hefeweizen, Mikkeller's puckishly name Beer Geek Breakfast, to name a few) and another dozen cans round out the robust beer list.
Like the beer, the decor and ambiance have been carefully thought out. The place has lovely, long wooden communal tables with swing-out, iron bar stools. The rustic brick walls and large chalkboard menus play up the “rustic chic” theme. The bar seems like the perfect spot to languorously eye the hot junior executive across the room. We haven't been here with the house fully packed, but even on busy nights, we could actually hear our dinner companions talk. (It's one of our pet peeves when restaurateurs think about every aspect of their venue except sound quality.)
City Tavern also serves food, but we like the ambiance so much, we almost don't want to mention it. Some dishes are ambitious but poorly executed, like the bland, soggy tomato tart tatin or the greasy Brussels sprouts that prove there is such a thing as too much bacon fat. The cheesy poofs — breaded, deep-fried twists of manchego — should be ordered with a group of no less than four people, preferably eight, and eaten as sparingly as a miser doling out gold coins. Two is a win, three is a push. Even Cartman probably couldn't finish a bowl of these cheesy poofs. To be fair, our waitress did warn us.
If you're ordering food, stick to the basics. Nothing that sounds unusual or elaborate. The burger is a safe bet. We prefer the CT burger with plain, old cheddar and without the house-made Thousand Island. The brew burger has the advantage of a pretzel bun, but it comes with a sharp “mustard aioli” (Isn't that just mustard and mayo mixed together? They called it Mayostard on “Mr. Show.”) that nearly drowns out the taste of the meat.
The menu is broad and definitely more ambitious than most bars, but the plates are small, and at those prices, City Tavern ought to inject a little more “gastro” into their pub.
The Upshot: Several degrees hipper than the typical neighborhood bar with a beer list to match. Come for the beer, stay for the beer.