Restaurant Review: The Twisted Tail

Good music and great drinks do not a proper dinner make

A nice dinner and a movie is a surefire combo, if you can manage it. Dinner and a play is even better. But if you don’t have the time for ticketed entertainment, the next-best route to a memorable evening is a really, truly, spectacularly bad meal. And the only way I know to guarantee one of those is to invite my brother out to eat.

There was the soul-food spot with iced tea so sludgy with sugar that I found myself looking up the symptoms of acute hyperglycemia. And the Puerto Rican joint where the service had us looking up from our bone-dry pork for a camera crew from Punk’d. There was the place whose goat-cheese cheesecake was a dead ringer for mealy apples, topped with candied orange peels that approximated beef jerky. It’s gotten to the point where when I go out to eat with Ryan, I want to enter the restaurant crouched behind him in a defensive squat, so as to evade the hail of sniper fire that’s the only logical endpoint of his Philadelphia dining luck.

But it was with an upright stance and no Kevlar on the chest that I accompanied him to a table at the Twisted Tail.

George Reilly’s Headhouse Square “passion project” seemed to have a few things going for it. The rustic­ horseshoe bar was long on brown liquor, with more than 50 whiskeys available. The quasi-Southern menu was ­ambitious—almost comically so, embracing everything from agave-­sweetened glazes to house-cured bacon to pickled watermelon­ rind. And if the meal went south, we could always head upstairs to the second-floor juke joint and drown our disappointment in live blues.

Reilly has been playing blues guitar since the tender age of 14. He was recently a bartender at Parc, and it shows in the Tail’s properly boozy (and not over-sweet) mint juleps and old-fashioneds, and Sazeracs that don’t let the rye trump the cognac. All of which makes it (slightly) easier to forgive the cocktail menu’s promiscuity with flavored vodkas, which at any rate aren’t all bad. The black-cherry gimlet tastes essentially like alcoholic Cherry Coke, but the Kool Kat (Grey Goose Pear with muddled cucumber and lime) neatly splits the uprights of refinement and refreshment.

Chef Michael Stevenson’s cooking, on the other hand, dings off both those poles—sometimes by design, sometimes by accident. The kitchen’s emphasis is on charcoal grilling and Southern comfort, but the frequent result on our late-summer foray (and other visits) was food heavy enough for the dead of winter. Dishes were variously good (lamb shoulder with a parsnip-potato gratin), bad (rubbery battered cod), and a little weird (duck-chicken-lamb chili topped with separately cooked white beans, then sprinkled with chocolate salt).

There’s lighter stuff on the menu, sure, but with the exception of six grilled oysters whose sweetness shone through the watermelon-rind chowchow (and even the habanero cocktail sauce), most of the skinnier­ fare fell flat. A cold-smoked tomato salad featured mediocre tomatoes (in a season full of outstanding ones) with no discernible smokiness. The Vidalia onion tart was undercut by a squishy—and for no good reason curry-spiced—butter crust. An atrociously cloying red velvet cake resurrected unwelcome memories of that notorious chèvre cheesecake.

Stevenson is capable of hitting the sweet spot between the heavy bombs and lighter disappointments. His crawfish mac-and-cheese was subtly rendered. The kettle-chip-crusted crabcakes were almost all crab and, with their Old Bay aioli, a lot more delicate than their junk-food title made them sound—even if the rich bacon-and-corn ragout they rode in on was the rib-stickingest treat of the meal. I just wish he’d aim for that middle ground more often, and do away with pointless gimmicks like the off-putting pacu “fish ribs.”

Upstairs, where flat-screen televisions bristle from walls papered with sheet music, and the top shelf of the bar is given over to snakes floating in glass bottles, Reilly has cobbled together a pretty decent if down-to-earth music program. Center City hasn’t had a reliable blues venue for some time—much less one with no or a low cover charge—and Twisted Tail could change that.

But it will have to tune up its menu—or rather strip it down, losing some of the flat notes the kitchen sounded by overreaching in its early months—to make a visit a compelling proposition. While my brother’s streak of unforgettably bad meals may have finally come to a muted end here, I wish it had concluded with a dinner memorable enough to make us want to come back.