Five Bar recently opened downtown. Where previous restaurants like Smokehouse and Lasso’s failed miserably at the “cursed” 104 South Main Street location, this group of already successful restaurateurs attempt to buck that trend. Originally from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Five Bar has successfully opened 2 other locations in Birmingham and in Athens, Georgia. With a simple concept of five appetizers, five entrees, five cocktails, and so forth…I really looked forward to their opening. Downtown Gainesville is begging for more quality dining establishments.
Let me begin by saying the good. The folks at Five Bar did a beautiful job of renovating the restaurant space. Those who have been in Gainesville for a while, may remember the location as the sleazy Rue Bar. After it was converted into a restaurant, the super classy stripper poles and New York City sewage smell remained. Five Bar has removed all traces of that, and even got rid of the unnecessarily large and stupid stage. The interior is kitschy, with random photos and portraits of the likes of Nelson Mandela and The Beatles scattered amongst soft lit chandeliers and Victorian furniture. It feels very classic and novel without the expectation of some overzealous bimbo popping out wearing suspenders covered in flair. The service was also fantastic. I had wonderful servers for both brunch and dinner service, and the management is very active in making sure you enjoy your dining experience. In a word, their service is superb.
While some may not agree, I love the concept of such a small menu. It enables a restaurant to really focus on those dishes, and make them well. There are few things worse than having to sift through an Encyclopedia Britannica of menu items. That is unless you’re at some Chinese restaurant. I dig the concept.
But then there’s the food. On my first visit, I came in for their Sunday Jazz Brunch. There was a Jazz Trio playing, a full Bloody Mary Bar ($8) available with your choice of concoctions, and five simple menu items. It was a wonderful ambience. I opted for the Chicken & Waffles ($12) and a friend ordered the Caramel Apple Beignets ($6). To be kind, I was not pleased with my dish. For $12, I was not served real maple syrup, and the supposed walnut waffles had maybe one piece of walnut in it. I brought this up to the manager, who has since informed me they will now be serving real maple syrup and more walnuts on the waffles. But come on, I’m not sure if it was acceptable in the other locations, and maybe Gainesville is too faux-high brow, but it shouldn’t take a customer complaint to serve someone real maple syrup. Especially when it’s for a “fancy” brunch. That’s like serving McNuggets for cocktail hour.
Tonight, I finally had the chance of stopping in for dinner with some friends. What ensued was likely the greatest culinary rollercoaster I’ve experienced in some time. To start, we had every appetizer on the menu aside from the French fries. Yoshie’s Chicken ($7 – soy ginger seasoned Sriracha aioli) was nothing more than Bang Bang Chicken. I tasted no soy, ginger, or Sriracha. The Baked Avocado ($7 – bacon, shrimp, spicy sauce) was tasty, but overpowered by bacon and cream, and the Pimento Cheese ‘N Jelly ($7 – pimento cheese, five pepper jelly, toasted crostinis) was good if you only had the crostini and jelly. Their version of Pimento Cheese was basically just cream cheese with a few peppers mixed in, it was just not good. The shining star of the appetizers (and the entire evening) was the Uptown Shrimp ($11 - creamy and spicy fried shrimp on top of Asian slaw and a wonton bowl). The shrimp was crispy and had a wonderful soy-based sauce on it, and the Asian slaw was just delicious.
The same delicious sauce was served on top of my entrée, the Bone-In Pork Chop ($22). Unfortunately, the pork was so salty, I could not eat it and actually sent it back. A manager apologized and agreed with me after trying the dish himself. I was told that another plate would come out with “lighter seasoning.” I’m sorry, but I shouldn’t have to ask for “lighter seasoning” to receive a “normally seasoned” piece of meat. Now you may have noticed in the photo that I opted for mashed potatoes and vegetables instead of the “Bahamian Mac” that is normally served. That’s because a friend ordered the Cheeseburger ($13), which was phenomenal, with a side of the “Bahamian Mac” (peppers in mac-n-cheese is Bahamian?). It was the driest, most flavorless mac-n-cheese I’ve ever tasted despite our server’s attempt to sell it as “so delicious.” In fact, I wouldn’t even call it mac-n-cheese, I would just call it mac.
Clearly aware of our unhappiness with the food, one of the managers was kind enough to comp a couple plates of dessert for us, their only dessert; the white chocolate bread pudding ($8). They really nailed this dish. Served warm, rich, and creamy with a beautiful layer of chocolate on top, it was (in the words of my dear friend) “like eating a grilled cheese dessert.”
Aside from the dessert and shrimp appetizer, ultimately what we have is food that is on par with something like a Bonefish Grill being served at a higher price. $22 for that pork chop was just too much, as was $7 for a few pieces of toasted bread with some bad cheese and a dollop of pepper jelly. I don’t mind a premium price if it is a premium dish, unique and beautifully executed. But we’re not talking Wagyu and pork belly, we’re talking about fried chicken, burgers, and pork chops. It’s bar food, and it has worked in college towns because of college kids who value the style over substance.
That said, the management is very open to criticism. As I mentioned earlier, after I spoke to them about the Chicken & Waffles, they acted very quickly to change up the syrup and waffles. I respect that. I respect it when a business owner and management don’t have their heads up their ass that they are willing to listen to their customers. And for that, I hope they go far. The space is beautiful, the service is wonderful, and the concept is there. The food is just sadly not. With better execution, it could work, but nothing on this menu would catch anybody’s eye. I sincerely hope the owners make this work because it’s a cool place. But if the food doesn’t get better, Five Bar will serve five appetizers, five entrees, and be open for five months.
Also, what’s up with being billed as a gastro-pub and not having any draft beers?