By Ezra Klein
Mt. Pleasant Street, down the block from the Raven. Lamer than the Raven. Where you go when the Raven is full of people. next to the place with the good tacos, and the other place with the good pizza. Some sort of restaurant upstairs. What’s the name again?
I thought I knew Tonic. I live in Mt. Pleasant. I’ve even eaten at Tonic. Endearing obsession with tater tots, mediocre food, terrible service. Forgettable. When Hobart was looking to rent a room at our house, one of their waitresses sent an inquiry. Sure, we said, come by at 9:00. Nine ticked over to 9:30, then 9:30 became 10:00. Adler looked over at me. Where’d you say she worked? Tonic. Well, he said. That explains that. He got up and went to bed.
For the last year, I’d forgotten about Tonic. But two nights ago, cold and hungry and needing something quick before telling the world about Sanjay Gupta, I stopped in. And friends, Tonic has had a makeover. First, it’s dark. Like, dimmer-barely-above-off dark. Like yawn-and-put-your-arm-around-the-person-next-to-you dark. Dark. What lighting exists comes from hanging orbs surrounded by a soft lattice. Could be kitschy, but it works. The whole place is now polished wood and dark cushions. The sprawling menu is down to one page. It feels expensive. It isn’t. And the wait staff, bless their hearts, knows it. They still dress in band t-shirts.
The food is the point, though. And the food is a trip. Whoever is running the kitchen has struck on something pretty profound: You don’t need to serve expensive food to make it look like you’re serving expensive food.
Indeed, the menu has shrunk, but it hasn’t changed. Caesar salad. Pulled pork sandwich. Beer and cheese soup. Tater tots with everything. Upscale bar food, in other words. But they’ve haute‘d it up. The Caesar salad is now an artful cylinder accented by a cross of two long, shining fillets of white anchovy. It looks like Michel Richard’s rendition at Central. It’s not. But it’s definitely decent, with thick croutons and an oil-based sauce and the sharp salt from the fish. The pulled pork sandwich used to be a thick lump of slow-roasted pork slopped atop a big, soft bun. Now it’s three assymetrically arranged mini-sandwiches, each a thick serving of shredded pig between two toasted baguette rounds, surrounded on all sides by tots. It’s extremely good. As, incidentally, are Tonic’s trademark tots, which now come with chili ketchup and spicy mustard sauce. The veggie sandwich my dining partner ordered was less impressive. It was fine. “I’d be pleasantly surprised by this at an airport,” she observed.
Is Tonic the next big thing? Probably not. But it’s worth giving another look. The food is good. The beer selection beats anything else on the block. Certainly the best bistro on Mt. Pleasant St. That’s easy to say given that it’s the only bistro on Mt. Pleasant St. But that was true last year, too, and you wouldn’t have attached best to their name. I’ll be going back. And on a foodie level, they’re an interesting reminder of how trendy aesthetics can signify fine food. The prices haven’t changed, and it’s little costlier for Tonic to offer three small sandwiches or arrange their salad in cylinder. But it gives the place a whole different feel. It feels like they’re trying, which was never the sense before.