It sure stings when a prized neighborhood hang closes. After Rich Mead’s Canyon Restaurant shuttered last fall, the vacancy grew more irksome with each passing week. By the time Reunion Kitchen Drink took over in December, my melancholy advanced to full-blown cynicism. So I expect my first visit to be bittersweet at best. But, after one sip at the very busy bar, I’m unexpectedly impressed. My lower Manhattan—a well-stirred mix of rye and bitters—comes with an ice sphere, drunken cherry, and canny repartee from the bartender. My pal’s bloody mary is aggressively spicy, and sports a bacon-wrapped jalapeno and a Slim Jim baton. Wow, this is a bar transformation, a marked upgrade in skills, ingredients, and attitude.
More customers, more staff, and a smart redesign lend energy and lightness to the formerly subdued restaurant space. The patio bustles, the reception desk welcomes. A ribbon of mirror expands the interior, reflecting daylight from oversize windows on one wall. Somehow, the refreshed floor plan also includes plenty of cozy booths with a measure of privacy. I see holdover Canyon customers and lots of new faces, too. It’s an older, local crowd—the coveted frequent-diner demographic that restaurants can’t thrive without, especially in sleepy North County.
Given that operating partner Scott McIntosh is a seasoned veteran of our dining scene, with a dossier that includes stints with Asada, Nick’s, and Claim Jumper, it’s no shock that Reunion’s single-page menu of feel-good American classics is brazenly close to Nick’s in format and scope. That said, any neighborhood would love a swell watering hole like Nick’s, so at least it mimics a winner.
As with J-Fat, Yard House, and other canteens of this ilk, Reunion’s fare is not chef-driven, but menu-focused, relying on a tightly vetted and consistent cast of dishes. Food choices kick off with the obligatory cadre of small helpings dubbed “snack” plates that go for a $2 discount at happy hour. Tender short rib sliders appeal, thanks to extra texture and oomph from fried onions and horseradish cream. A tower of seared ahi, fresh avocado, juicy mango relish, and Sriracha cream could sub for a light meal. Both the spicy wings with blue cheese slaw, and the bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers are delights I’d label sports-bar chow if there were more flat screens and the few they have weren’t set on muted audio. Singed Brussels sprouts with bacon and maple syrup have so much cider vinegar they rankle, but others disagree—I spot cast-iron pots on half the tables.
Burgers and sandwiches are a likeable lot. Ample thick bacon, seasoned mayo, and sourdough, crusty with Parmesan, make for a laudable BLT. Thin slices of honey-baked ham, doused in worthy house barbecue sauce and stacked with Swiss cheese on a hearty French roll has a certain retro flair. Prime rib, roasted daily and carved thin, is the tasty core of a classic dip sandwich with rich au jus and horseradish aioli. A good meatloaf sandwich would be damn good minus the shredded lettuce that makes it mushy and difficult to eat. Both burgers, a classic cheeseburger, and a loaded avocado-bacon model, are brawny efforts. Patties are half-pound, cooked to order, and too huge to manage on their sturdy potato buns, but burly types may appreciate the heft. All come with fresh slaw or excellent, crispy-edged steak fries.
Entree choices include some decidedly craveable plates—dishes that become instant favorites. The fried chicken deserves high praise. Boneless breasts are deep-fried to allow even cooking, and they’re encased in crunchy, golden, well-seasoned batter that almost steals the show from the moist, buttermilk-marinated chicken meat. Silken, buttery Yukon gold mashers are near-perfect under a drizzle of sausage-flecked gravy, and the fresh-baked, flaky buttermilk biscuit is ready for melting honey butter, if you dare. Other must-order entrees: luscious baby-back ribs with warm sliced potato salad; pan-roasted salmon with mustard burre blanc and capers over brown rice; and primo ale-battered cod and chips with fresh tartar sauce.
As a reformed meatloaf hater, I happily applaud the tender, moist version speckled with veggies, smeared with barbecue sauce, and lassoed with smoky bacon. A big slab on those buttery mashed potatoes gets balance from a mix of roasted vegetables, though it’s tempting to simply layer the loaf between the two garlic cheese toasts. Portions are generous, so doggy bag fans are in luck.
Though the dessert list grows faster than I can sample, the crusty, yellow butter cake with ice cream is a salty-sweet dream (mindful of Nick’s), and both the carrot cake and apple crumble are home-style delicious. All are worth hoarding.
Friendly staffers impress with tasteful gestures such as refolding napkins when diners step away, packing leftovers away in the kitchen, and bringing steamy finger towels at meal’s end. They seem fully aware they’re in the hospitality business. How refreshing.
Some restaurant closings are heartbreakers. Heck, I’ve had my heart crushed by a few openings, too. Reunion shows it pays to remain hopeful, because every now and then a charming keeper comes along.
Short rib sliders, ahi stack, bacon-wrapped jalapeños, BLT, barbecue ham sandwich, prime rib dip, chicken and biscuits, pan-roasted salmon, barbecue-glazed meatloaf, fish and chips, butter cake, fruit crumble, specialty cocktails.
Snacks, $7 to $14; salads, burgers, and sandwiches, $9 to $18; entrees, $14 to $36; desserts, $7 to $10.
Happy hour throughout
the restaurant on weekdays, 2:30 to 6 p.m.; free corkage.
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue.