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Tavern on the Square

Merchantville is home to some of the finest Victorian buildings in the area. However, without having relatives or friends there, it`s not easy to get dinner reservations in some of the 1890-era gems. Thank goodness Tavern on the Square has opened in the heart of the downtown. There one can eat in Victorian ambiance without having to burst into someone`s kitchen.

Housed in the three-story, red-brick Collins and Pancoast Hall (built in 1893), Tavern on the Square serves up excellent American cuisine. It`s been doing so for well over a month now. That`s not quite a century-old restaurant, but, judging from the crowd one evening, the good tavern has reason to stick around.

Patti and I sat down to an enjoyable meal, with quick, friendly service; imaginative cuisine; and fresh ingredients (no 100-year-old eats here). Unable to decide on a soup, we shared two excellent selections. The soup du jour ($1.95/cup) was ham and chicken gumbo, a dark, spicy (okra`s on!) creation full of bite-size ham and shredded chicken. We also shared a bowl of French onion soup ($2.95), with a thick topping of cheese and the requisite huge croutons. It was much less salty (and thus more tasty) than your standard onion soups.

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We followed with salads (included with dinners) of assorted greens, cherry tomatoes, black olives, mushrooms, red cabbage, and Ñ for a little kick Ñ black peppercorns. Patti`s blue cheese dressing was thick and chunky. I enjoyed a sharp raspberry vinaigrette.

From head chef Steve Thomas` eclectic menu (ranging from meatloaf with sun-dried tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, and pistachios to a 1 1/2-lb lobster), Patti chose Seafood Neptune ($17.95). She was pre-sented with a huge plate of lobster, shrimp, scallops and crabmeat in a plate of al dente spaghetti. The seafood was sauteed in a garlic and white wine sauce. As befitting my wife`s straight-laced Victorian palate, the flavors were quite mild and genteel.

I managed to eat my way through a colorful creation named Panhandle Penne ($14.95), tender penne pasta with bits of Italian sausage, shredded chicken, plum tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes and broccoli in a red pepper and garlic cream sauce. Once again, the sauce was mild (as mild as red pepper and garlic can get!), with the sun-dried tomatoes adding sharpness.

For dessert, Patti made short work of a Lemon Mirror, a tangy lemon cake, almost meringuey in texture, surrounded by lady fingers. There was a hint of raspberry flavor throughout. I enjoyed strawberry-topped cheesecake, a surprisingly light cake covered with strawberries in a thick sauce. The renowned La Patisserie bakery of Haddonfield makes the Tavern`s desserts. There`s one good Victorian town helping another.

The dining area is a large, open room, with huge windows on one side. One can almost imagine sitting at a window table in the century-old building, waiting for a steam engine to come up the long-gone railroad tracks. Floral arrangements, sconces, and 19th-century-style artwork abound. Subdued lighting and creamy colored walls make for a relaxing atmosphere. Each table is adorned with two tablecloths (white covering hunter green) and a single candle. Seating is either on parlor chairs or reenstriped padded benches.

The remainder of the restaurant deserves a visit. A popular bar sits in front of the dining area (Guinness is on tap - it HAS to be popular) and includes a small band area. When we were there a sole musician with a keyboard provided soft dinner music. The second level is home to a banquet room with the only gold-glitter-topped bar I have ever seen. The third floor has another banquet room and a lounge area with a busy bar, along with a cigar bar. Unlike Victorian times, men and women were sitting together, enjoying drinks and smoking cigars. Shocking!

Tavern On The Square Centre Street Merchantville 665-4099

Appetizers: $2.95 - $7.95 Dinner Entrees: $10.95 - $24.95 Reservations Recommended Full-Service Bar Handicapped Accessible Nonsmoking Only Executive Chef: Steve Thomas Owners: Paul Kelly, Gene Murphy


Author: James Reuter

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