New digs retain comfort and familiarity.
It would be easy to think of Monkey Bar & Restaurant as an exercise distinctly lacking in ambition. In Philadelphia right now, in this era of foie gras on our fries, marrow in our burgers and pedigree attached to everything, Monkey Bar’s goals appear relatively low.
But to make that conclusion is to miss the point entirely, and to engage in a particularly unappealing sort of culinary and cultural snobbishness in the process. Sure, the Monkey’s ambitions include no discernible “gastritude.” Admittedly, the beer program is appealing without demanding attention. And, yes, the service is amenable, yet not terribly noteworthy.
These are all good things in their own way. Sometimes all you really want is a decent neighborhood bar, a bite to eat, and to get on with your day.
Any visit to Monkey—especially in the warmer months when the tables are scattered outside and the out-of-town foot-traffic on Chestnut and Third streets represents the effective opposite of the catwalk outside Rittenhouse’s totemic cafes—has to start with a margarita. The old Society Hill Hotel here has been snapped up by the good folks behind the Copabanana, and they’ve brought along their addictive margarita. Suck it down with abandon: Its fresh-juice brightness wraps around even the tequila from the well, and a serving is the equivalent of three-and-a-half full drinks. Stand up carefully afterward.
The mojito is also an oversized affair, and what it lacks in minty freshness it makes up for in boozy generosity. If the rule is real men don’t slurp cocktails through a straw, then this may be its exception. It’s served in a pint glass, and the rum sinks to the bottom. Show it the respect it deserves and suck it up from beneath the Everest of cubes, manliness be damned.
Either of these tropical-y cocktails was a necessity alongside a recent order of grilled shrimp grown slightly too bitter and carbon-tinged from the heat of the flame. The citrus in the drinks cut it, and livened up the remoulade.
Fish tacos fared better. And though they could have used a bit more salt, the presentation was simple and appealing: Crisp-crusted rails of flaky haddock crowned with a uniquely cabbage-y slaw and a side of sour cream, all of it dusted generously with paprika. Simple, confident and stellar with a beer.
So it also goes with the oddly named “Zulu quesadillas.” The promise on the menu is of “Jamaican jerk chicken,” but don’t expect it. These mildly spiced cubes of poultry are to Jamaican jerk as Bud Lite is to beer. Still, just as a freezing-cold Bud is sometimes exactly what you need, this chicken manages to do the trick. It’s an unexpectedly sweet affair, from the cheese to the chicken to the unexpectedly mild seasoning itself, but it works nonetheless.
Much of the food here plays in the same snacky sandbox. Burgers are generous and straightforward, if sandwiched on bread a touch too thick and floury. Still, the Yucatan, with its jack cheese and fried jalapeños and onions, is drunk-food embodied.
Of course, just because the Monkey’s goals are so seemingly modest doesn’t mean that certain problems should be excused. Spanish fly French fries could have used more salt, as well as another minute or two in the fryer. The beer list is perfectly nice, but that’s damning with faint praise in this sudsy city. Also, the entree list reads like it could have come from a country club menu circa 1993: Lobster ravioli, Linguine pescatore, pepper-crusted tuna. Glancing over these selections causes a big, sighing meh to well up in my soul. They’re expensive, too, topping out at $24.95 for the pasta.
But that doesn’t seem to be this Monkey’s bread and butter anyway. Rather, it finds its surest footing in the realm of the neighborhood bar, and it does that job very well. Pull up a seat, down a drink or three, snack away a few hours. Comfort and familiarity are often exactly what you need.
301 Chestnut St.
Cuisine type: Basic and pubby.
Hours: Mon.-Sun., noon-midnight. Bar open till 2am.
Price range: $8.95-$24.95.
Atmosphere: Convivial and comfortable, even if the whole old-school Havana thing seems kind of half-hearted. Still, great place to watch the game.
Food: Hits its goals well.
Service: Helpful and pleasant.
Dinner with Luke Palladino