Bellytimber Tavern and Mezzanine may share some of the same owners, but folks who come to the rustic pub at Main and Plum streets expecting Mezzanine's atmosphere and ambitious plates are in for a surprise. Bellytimber's charms are of a simpler variety.
The words belly timber are 17th-century English slang for food, and the old-fashioned name fits the space, which dates to 1874. The interior of the former Border Cafe was gutted to make way for a hefty wooden bar that stretches almost the length of the room, plus a few booths and bar tables. Windows were added along Plum Street and large-screen televisions were installed over the bar. The original brick and some of the old paint and wallpaper are exposed, serving as a backdrop for local art for sale.
The vibe, too, feels purposefully casual, even rough around the edges. Napkins are paper, you generally seat yourself, and the menus might have stains. Wilco is playing on the sound system. The staff is mostly young and tattooed, not always adept, but almost always good-natured, even when way understaffed. On first impression it's a classic college bar — a place to eat wings and drink many beers until the wee hours.
Thankfully, the menu is more inspired than that, filled with vegetarian and vegan options, and showcases a commitment to quality local and seasonal ingredients that it shares with Mezzanine.
The lineup of small plates includes a fantastic Twin Oaks tofu coated in nutritional yeast (in the sounds-gross-but-really-good category) and several raw bar selections, along with Bell and Evans chicken wings that come with a choice of three sauces. The classic buffalo version has just the mouth-tingling kick from Frank's hot sauce that you'd hope for. The popular pierogi are a carb fest of potato-stuffed dumplings that could use more seasoning, although they are incredibly tasty as cold leftovers.
In keeping with the seasonal mantra, the kale part of the curly kale and avocado salad isn't currently offered, so the same toppings are served instead over mixed greens. I imagine the kale would be more interesting, but the medley of wasabi peas, avocado, red onion and apple cider vinaigrette still works. The grilled romaine hearts salad is over-grilled for my taste, but nicely accompanied by neat strips of seeded tomato and tangy Caesar dressing.
One of the most tempting things about Bellytimber's menu is the pricing, especially in the sandwich and pizza sections. Every sandwich is less than $10 and is served with house-made chips or a generous side salad. If we lived in a world without calories, I could eat the sloppy Joe every day. The huge mess of a sandwich is made from beefalo — a beef and buffalo combo — doused in zesty tomato-y sauce and covered in cheddar and slaw. The only downer is the bun, which is burned around the edges.
The beefalo burger shares the same bun misfortune, and commits the cardinal sin of pairing a small patty with an oversized bun. What's supposed to be medium rare comes out as medium well, and the meat is underseasoned.
Like the selection of sandwiches (which includes the Messy Jane, a vegan sloppy Joe made with textured vegetable protein) there's a pizza for everyone, even a vegan cheese variety. With the authentic brick oven in the back, you might expect a super crispy crust, but don't. While the crust is flavorful and crispy around the edges, the center is flimsy on the pies we try. On the Belly pie, it would be nearly impossible for the crust to hold up to the extravagant array of toppings. With all the meats, veggies and cheeses, this is Alka-Seltzer food.
In the category of traditional entrees, two large plates and a handful of pasta choices are offered. The half chicken is satisfying but nothing special. The fettuccine Alfredo has rich Parmesan flavor, but some of the pasta is clumpy and the top layer is a bit congealed, as if it sat out too long before serving. With only two waitresses for a full house, I can understand how that might happen.
Most folks, though, aren't coming to Bellytimber for the perfect service or a five-star pasta dish. It would be nice if the burger were better, and the pizza a little crispier, but what packs the place is the good beer selection, the great menu variety and values (did I mention the 50-cent wings at happy hour?), and an easygoing vibe. And at least some of us will keep coming back for the sloppy Joe. S
Bellytimber Tavern ($)
1501 W. Main St.
Daily, 11 a.m. - 2 a.m.