It's the Nickelback of the bar scene: aggressively mediocre, but not too loud to ignore.
Macungie, Pa. Manchester, Conn. Missouri. Each of my dining companions—independently and without prompting—noted that Rebel Rock Bar & Bites reminded them of being somewhere other than Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the comparisons were less than flattering.
Indeed, it’s tough to shake the “visiting the suburbs” feel imparted by entering a bar that is located in a strip mall, with neighbors that include a gentleman’s club, a bartending school and an Enterprise Rent-A-Car. The view out the floor-to-ceiling front windows—and the backdrop for live music, which is performed several nights a week on the modest stage beside the front door—is the parking lot and the highway beyond. It’s not Philly’s most charming vista.
Rebel might overcome its challenging location if the food, the drinks, the service or the music were a substantial draw (after all, how many horrified bridge-and-tunnel types braved the Bowery to visit CBGB in its heyday?) On my multiple visits, though, Rebel disappointed on all fronts.
Live music is always hit-or-miss, and new venues often struggle to book performers that will draw a crowd, so it’s tough to fault the 5-month-old space on that count. But the rest of it—food, drinks and service—are firmly in Rebel’s control, yet never manage to impress.
To start, service is dispassionate and tepid. Nary an item was brought to our table that we didn’t have to request, and this includes water with dinner and silverware after ours was inexplicably cleared halfway through the meal. Processing payment on our check took an inordinate amount of time, excusable in a bustling restaurant but extremely frustrating as we were the only guests in the spacious bi-level dining room. Even simple questions about the menu (i.e. “What’s this on top of my burger?”) required a trip to the kitchen to find out. These are the basics, folks. If you can’t tell me what I’m eating—and bring me a fork and knife with which to eat it and a glass of water with which to wash it down—perhaps you shouldn’t be the one serving it.
Rebel’s biggest claim to fame are its “tap tables,” three booths with two beer taps each, activated from behind the bar and tracked by computer to the .001 pint. Although it was cool to be able to pour our own beers (at the time of our visits, Blue Moon and Dogfish Head’s excellent 60 Minute IPA were on draught), it was hard to shake the feeling that letting guests pour their own beers was only intended to make one less chore for the apathetic service staff.
The restaurant also boasts a generous happy hour, but on one visit our server seemed not to realize it until we asked about any daily specials. He made a tremendous show of applying the “discount” to our check (a “discount” afforded to anyone dining between 5 and 8 p.m.) and also made sure to point out the original total as we paid, presumably to ensure a higher tip percentage. If we hadn’t had to chase him to the bar in order to close our check, we might have been more inclined to be generous.
The food is nowhere near as disappointing as the service, with a few notable bright spots. The house mac ’n’ cheese is creamy, bright and big enough to share, whether served plain or studded with lobster meat or bacon. It’s not my favorite in town, but it’s compulsively eatable, and on two separate occasions, I found myself cleaning the plate. Gravy fries, beneath melted cheese slices and savory dark brown gravy, are the stuff that hangover cures are made of. Braised pork sliders arrive three to an order, with sweet and savory pulled pork studded with apples generously piled onto fluffy, buttered and grilled buns.
That same pork appears on the larger barbecue pulled pork sandwich, but with less success; greasy cheese sauce and limp pickled cabbage conspire with a soggy bun to create a texture that most closely resembles meaty oatmeal. The “barnyard” burger, topped with pork belly, fried egg and sriracha, is stacked so tall and is so protein-dense, it is inedible without a steak knife (which the restaurant doesn’t stock), a fork, a bib and a great deal of patience. Cheese steak wontons lack flavor, and are served with A-1 aioli that borders on medicinal, a far cry from the carnivorous comfort of the real thing.
Which is Rebel all over, really: this is a “rock bar” that doesn’t rock—and would be more at home in Missouri. Or Manchester. Or Macungie.
100 Spring Garden St. 215.925.1606. rebelphiladelphia.com
Cuisine: Bar food.
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 4pm-1am; Sat. and Sun., 1pm-1am.
Price range: $7-$35.
Atmosphere: Among the more grievous examples in recent memory of the co-opting of “rock” culture by those who do not rock.
Food: Improves proportionately to beers consumed, but never quite reaches delicious.
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