The restorative powers of a well-prepped order of steak frites are difficult to overstate. Prior to a recent visit to the Good King Tavern, I, along with most other Philadelphians, had been feeling victimized by the weather, by the aggressive capriciousness of this winter, by its angry snow storms and recalcitrant ice.
But just a few bites into my perfectly sliced skirt steak, I realized that I already felt better than I had in weeks. The transformation began as soon as we walked in to the candlelit space, formerly Chick’s Wine Bar but now reimagined as a quintessential French tavern. The pressed tin walls, the wooden tables illuminated by flickering votives, the original mirrors behind the bar: All of it conspired to force me to take a deep breath for the first time in weeks and maybe even enjoy the weather. When you’re ensconced in a space as cozy as this, it’s difficult to feel anything but contended.
A well-crafted cocktail certainly helped things along, and my sazerac, all swirling with Vieux Carré absinthe against the seam of spice from the Rittenhouse rye, was a classic restorative. (It also was a tremendously generous pour, nearly three fingers-full.) But a glass of wine from the approachable, smart selection would also have done the trick, too. There is enough here to appeal to any taste, from familiar house pours to less-known varieties that are worth exploring. Beers, too, are well-chosen and suited to the food.
But it’s that food that really calmed me down, centered me the way only well-crafted, casual French classics can. The kitchen here, under the leadership of Chef Paul Lyons—and the watch of owners Bernard and Chloe Grigri—is subtly ambitious, crafting as much in-house as they can. The results are deliciously evident in the meat board, a canoe-sized wooden vessel bearing meltingly delicate foie gras torchon, sliced thin and elegantly perfumed from the Grand Marnier in its marinade; country pate all earthy with pork shoulder and chicken and pork livers, all of it wrapped in bacon; duck rillettes cleverly tossed with a parsley and pickled shallot salad; and nutmeg- and lavender-kissed Toulouse sausage, produced right here and seared to order. Pickled cauliflower and cabbage, as well as smart sides paired with each (the black olive and fig tapenade is great), dot the plate, the better to cut through the heartiness of those excellent meats.
Octopus, cooked sous vide and then charred to order, was streaked with unexpected notes of cinnamon and chili flakes: Dynamite. It would have been better had it been slightly more tender, but it still arrived plenty addictive on its bed of peppery arugula. The brandade was a fabulous take on the deeply comforting Portuguese puree of potato and salt cod, but here cleverly garnished with a gorgeous anchoïade, which brought together roasted fennel bulbs, anchovies, almonds, capers, pernod and more. This was a hearty portion, and appropriate for sharing. Or, frankly, for ordering at the bar with a glass of white: A perfect casual dinner for one.
The skate special arrived luxuriating in a cream sauce kissed with what tasted like all the saffron in the neighborhood. It was deeply perfumed with it, and burnished to a beguiling color not all that different from a custard. Dunk the crispy skate in it, spear a potato chunk, and tell the winter to go to hell: With this on your plate, all is just fine with the world.
And then there’s the steak frites. Lyons is smart enough not to try to reinvent what’s already more than good enough, but the little details here lift it up beyond its humble origins: The smoky hint from its char-broiler stint; the vivacious pink center of each slice; the crunch of sea salt snapping each bite to life; the fries all crisp and rich with garlic and onion powder and nutritional yeast. This is steak and potatoes as the great carnivore in the sky intended them to be eaten.
Wrap things up with decadent bread pudding—who doesn’t love cranberries, sliced almonds and chocolate carried in a creamy brioche vessel?—or a chocolate creme brulee (that could have used a more assertively crisp cap on top). And make sure to check out the homemade ice creams: The lavender one on top of the bread pudding was stunning. And then, after all that, order another drink, linger for a bit, and enjoy the ample charms of the Good King Tavern. It’s a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and full of enough unselfconscious pleasures to demand, and fully justify, repeated return visits. No matter what the weather looks like.
THE GOOD KING TAVERN
614 S. Seventh St. 215.625.3700. thegoodkingtavern.com
Cuisine: “French Tavern Food”
Hours: Daily, 5pm-1am; Bar: 5pm-2am.
Price range: All a la carte items under $20.
Atmosphere: Casual and comforting.
Food: French-tavern classics done right.
Service: Friendly, welcoming and very well-informed.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014