Lately in Mount Vernon, especially in the vicinity of the Washington Monument, there's the faint but unmistakably syrupy aroma of barbecue in the air. Follow the trail and you'll find yourself at an unexpected place — the Midtown Yacht Club.
The perennial after-work bar, Midtown, a staple in Mount Vernon under various names since the '80s, long-known for its peanut-shell-covered floors, has been redubbed Midtown BBQ & Brew. It's still a bar, but now it's also a barbecue restaurant, all under one roof.
I visited a couple of times last week, and despite a few flaws in the service and presentation, Midtown might just be poised to become Mount Vernon's happy hour nerve center again, thanks to a successful face-lift and a farm-to-table menu that is unapologetically traditional, rich and charmingly displayed on the plate.
Midtown's best decade was in the '80s, but in recent years it had developed a reputation as a dive, and not in a good way. Nathan Beveridge, who'd sold the business in 2006 while staying as a landlord, took it over last fall and has refashioned it from top to bottom, literally — the second and third floors have been opened to function as lounging areas during the day.
The bar/restaurant, which officially re-opened in early December, has also gotten brand-new hardwood floors, signage and a paint job.
It bears only a vague resemblance to a bar that had gone unchanged for so long — the barrel of peanuts is still there, as are the old beer ads hanging from the walls, and near one of the tables, that plaque dedicated to a longtime customer.
Divided into an ample bar and, by the back, a dining area with around six tables, including some for groups, the first floor is homey and inviting. Early in the week, Midtown is mostly quiet, with only a few guests catching up with ESPN at the bar. But, on Thursday night, the place was shoulder-to-shoulder — the crowd seemed to be a mix of young and mature.
The most remarkable change has been to the menu. Managing partner and chef Anthony Harrison has included lots of staples — nachos, dips, Caesar salads and club sandwiches. But on both my visits, I focused on his signature barbecue — the rack ribs, wings, pulled-pork sandwich and its piggybacks, Midtown's version of sides.
Midtown's ribs, in particular, stand out. Most restaurants serve the kind of pork ribs that melt in your mouth. But because Midtown's are beef ribs, they have more chew to them, and texture, like a steak.
Harrison says his beef is organic, free-range, bought from a Pennsylvania farm and butchered and smoked in-house. This farm-to-table approach, rare among casual restaurants, is one of the restaurant's assets. The owners should do more to advertise it.
The portions at Midtown are also big: Even the half-rack of ribs is intimidating, and leaves plenty of left-overs. The nuclear wings, charmingly served on metal coffee cups, have an intense bite, though they're also served with a milder Buffalo-style sauce.
The chunky pulled pork almost overwhelms the bun it comes on, threatening to slip out every time you take a bite. Midtown's sides — also big enough to share — are excellent, especially the corn bread, which is savory and doesn't crumble easily. The restaurant has two varieties of mac 'n' cheese, regular and spicy — I tried the regular and found it too plain. But the rest of the flavors in the menu are so bold they compensate for the mac's dullness.
In contrast, Midtown's beer selection is disappointingly modest — 16 drafts, most of them macros with a few exceptions: Heavy Seas, Dogfish Head, Flying Dog.
Under the new management, the bar has made one other welcome change: Instead of focusing on rums, it's switched to bourbons. Try its aged Booker's bourbon, a powerhouse shot which has one of Jim Beam's highest alcohol concentrations. Make sure to ask for it with one ice cube, to water down its intensity.
Midtown, though, still has flaws. The peanut shells on the floor might be part of the bar's charm but, left unswept, even after a guest has left, make it look slovenly. The staff, while enthusiastic, was disorganized — I had two different waiters and a hostess check in with me throughout my second meal at the restaurant. This is unnecessary unless I'm choking on shelled peanuts.
Dinner on Thursday was also too loud — between the hockey game on TV, the guests' overlapping conversations, and, improbably, a karaoke DJ who was bombing badly — Midtown had too much going on, like it was too eager to please.
The restaurant would be wise to scale back, and highlight its best asset — its food. That's why I'll be coming back, not for the beer, not for the TV, but for an enormous rack of ribs that'll last me for a couple of days.
Back story: A mainstay in Mount Vernon since the '80s, Midtown Yacht Club was renamed Midtown BBQ & Brew last fall, when owner Nathan Beveridge, who had sold the business in 2006, took it back. Though the name has been criticized, Beveridge says the old name had acquired a bad connotation.
Parking: Street, metered parking available.
Signature dish: Midtown's rack ribs are a stand-out, made from free-range organic beef and served in big portions.
Where: 15 East Centre St.
Contact: 443-835-2472, midtownbbqandbrew.com
Open: Seven days a week, 11 a.m. – 2 a.m.
Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Food: *** 1/2
Service: ** 1/2
[Key: Excellent:****; Good: ***; Uneven: **; Poor: *]