The space at 1604 Kelly Ave., in the heart of Mount Washington, is tricky. For one thing, it's surrounded by venerable institutions like the Mount Washington Tavern and Ethel and Ramone's. Parking is also an issue. But more crucially, it's just an odd space: a giant, ungainly L-shape that, in a previous life, had been a grocery store. In the past five years, three separate owners have tried to turn the place into a restaurant, and all struggled to keep the space from feeling industrial, unfinished, temporary.
First, there was Freda's, a café and deli with extraordinarily friendly owners, but the warm embrace was just swallowed by the square footage and seemed destined to fail, which it ultimately did. Next up was The Falls, which could never decide what it wanted to be, shifting from a casual eatery to more of a bar, constantly tinkering with the menu and hours during a brief existence. Most recently, there was Blue Sage, which struggled with uneven food and service and folded earlier this year.
Enter Robbin Haas, chef-owner of Birroteca, the fantastic pizza place that opened in Hampden in 2012 and won the City Paper Readers Poll for "Best New Restaurant" in September. In November, when City Paper talked to Haas as he prepared to open another restaurant in the seemingly cursed space, he didn't sound worried. "I just thought it was a good location and it seemed to be a fairly decent deal," he said. Clearly he had a plan.
The result is Nickel Taphouse (1604 Kelly Ave.,  869-6240), a charming, relaxed restaurant that, more than any of its recent predecessors, seems to be comfortable in its own skin. From the bull-horn doorknob at the entrance to the warm maroon interior and hardwood tables and chairs, the place just feels right, refined but comfortable. And the eclectic menu, drawn both from Haas' roots in Buffalo and from more local sources, doesn't feel overworked. There is an expertise here, reflected in the suberb flavor combinations and in the lovely presentations.
In the lead-up to the opening, the most hyped menu item was the "Beef on 'Weck'" ($13), a Buffalo specialty. Even if you missed the hype, you might still know that the proprietors think this sandwich is special, as it's the only menu item set in its own box. And for good reason. The kummelweck roll is perfectly toasted and stacked with a pile of beef so rare and thinly sliced that, smushed together, it almost looks like beef tartare. With a smidge of the housemade horseradish sauce, served on the side, the sandwich is flavorful and satisfying. The side of dry slaw and spicy-sweet pickles are the perfect accompaniment.
But you will want to try so many more things at Nickel Taphouse. Among the possibilities are the iced fresh oysters (market-priced), roasted oysters ($3 each), and mussels ($17 for a pound). The roasted bivalves come in seven styles. We opted for one each of casino, Rockefeller, and jungle Thai curry. All were expertly prepared and tasty, but only the curry offered a real mouthful of flavor.
There are few light-sounding dishes on the meat-heavy menu, even among the salads. We opted for the chopped tavern ($15). Our server combined the ingredients-artisan ham, roast beef, chicken, fontina, cucumbers, eggs, greens, and a bleu cheese vinaigrette-tableside. Even with all that protein, the salad felt balanced and not as leaden as you might expect.
Along with burgers, sandwiches, snacks, spreads, and two options of artisan ham, the menu offers six "big plates" intended for two. There are several intriguing options, including a roasted whole bronzini ($31) and the braised beef brisket ($31). We tried the pork schnitzel ($26.50), served with arugula, lemon, capers, and butter. The pork was nicely cooked, coated with breading, but it was the simple, delicious sauce-not too heavy or rich-that made the dish worth savoring. We scooped up every last caper.
The burgers, made with grass-fed Roseda beef, were tender and flavorful without any toppings ($7 for the smaller "Nickel," $12 for the "Dime"), although plenty are available, including house-cured bacon and fried eggs. The grilled cheese ($12) is really a misnomer, stuffed as it is with eggplant, zucchini, and tomato in addition to fontina and asiago. Piled high and served on thick, heavily buttered slices of French bread, it was one of the few items that felt a little too heavy. But it could have been a cumulative effect of all that came before it.
Washing down all these delights is just as pleasurable, as there are dozens of well-priced whites and reds by the bottle, and six or seven of each by the glass, plus 32 beers on draft, including several from Maryland breweries, including Evolution, DuClaw, Heavy Seas, and Flying Dog. Among the specialty cocktails are more nods to Haas' hometown, including the Jim Kelly (Cold River Vodka, VYA dry vermouth, celery bitters, and pickled green beans) and the Buffalo Rose (Small's gin, Luxardo Maraschino, and lemon juice).
On the dessert menu are four dishes and three "boozy shakes" (recently opened Spike Gjerde faux-diner Shoo-Fly also offers spiked milkshakes-this is a trend we fully endorse). The Keep Calm and Creme Brulee (Four Roses bourbon, dulce de leche, vanilla ice cream, and St. Elmo's Fire) shake was scrumptious. The chocolate-peanut butter cup was the only full-on misstep of the meal. The fresh whipped cream on top was great, as was the chocolatey first layer, but once we hit the peanut butter, our noses collectively wrinkled-something was amiss. We couldn't quite place it, but the flavor was just off. We asked the server, thinking it might be some kind of specialty product, but she said "It's not Jif, it's the other one," and returned a few minutes later, exultant. "Skippy! That's it." Server, we've eaten Skippy. We know Skippy. Skippy is a friend of ours. Server, that's no Skippy . . . or if it is, it's been seriously messed with.
But Skippy or not, we wouldn't let some funky peanut butter detract from a delicious meal. We'll be back. And we have a feeling that, unlike those that came before it, Nickel Taphouse will be there to come back to for years.
Nickel Taphouse is open Monday through Thursday and Sunday 5-11 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 5:30-11:30 p.m. At press time, the restaurant said it was planning to launch lunch service Dec. 20.