Photo By: Kass Mencher
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It was hard to decide which was more pathetic: the host's sniveling apology as my party left Tavern 17, or the fact that it could have applied to so many different failures that it was impossible to know which one he had in mind. It was fitting, though, that the evening ended with one last puzzle. Rarely does mere dinner service inspire comparisons to Dada performance art and provoke peals of laughter, but this is a restaurant whose specialties are not limited to mediocrity and indifference. At its best, Tavern 17 offers an experience that is completely incomprehensible.
Situated next door to the Radisson Plaza-Warwick Hotel, Tavern 17 sports a look that could have tumbled out of the pages of Dwell magazine. A lounge area caters to the cocktail set with deep chairs and end tables that fall somewhere in between midcentury modern and last year's Ikea catalogue. There's a well-lit bar bristling with flatscreens, and dinner tables occupy the rear section of the space. It was at one of these that the waiting game began.
After being seated and given menus, we were left entirely alone for at least 10 minutes. Happily, conversation was brisk, but when another few minutes passed, I approached the host. With a smile, I told him I was afraid we might have been lost in the shuffle, but that we were ready to order.
This did not bring a server to our table. The host strolled into the room next to ours, where two waiters were laying out silverware, and talked to one of them at length. When the conversation ended, the host returned to his station. The waiter stayed put.
A second conversation followed. Finally, 20 minutes after we sat down, a server arrived at our table. "So you've been waiting a while?" he asked sourly.
"Yeah, just a little," I replied, and then asked for a bottle of rosÃ©.
"I can't hear you," he interrupted, although the room wasn't loud. "I've been here since 6 a.m. Since breakfast."
I put my finger to the drearily generic wine list and repeated myself. A few minutes later he returned with the wrong bottle. When I pointed out the mix-up, he gestured at a colleague and smirked, seeming to indicate that the other man was an idiot and responsible for the mistake. Never mind that the wine wasn't even the right color.
Soon he took our orders, forcing me to repeat them after he decided to write them down, after all. Then, in what seemed a gamely attempt to rescue the initial awkwardness, he smiled and said, "OK, I'll be back in an hour and a half."
There was another joke in store for us, however: He never came back at all.
Instead, about 20 minutes later, a woman delivered our food in one giant, table-cramming onslaught, appetizers and entrees alike. Bowling us over with sheer quantity may have been a calculated strategy, because quality wasn't in the cards.
At $24 a pair, my crab cakes were unrelentingly boring. If they contained anything besides crab and bread crumbs, it was flavorless. Yet shortly I would be reminiscing about them, because next up was the worst lobster I have ever put in my mouth. With a rubbery texture that suggested the sole of a flip-flop sandal, it may well have been frozen and thawed. The main question was: What would happen if I dropped it on the floor? Fie on my mother for teaching me good manners; I think it would have bounced.
The most interesting thing about the grilled vegetable panini was that three-quarters of it still remained on the plate when a new server presented me with the check. In fact, hardly five minutes had passed from the arrival of our food when this happened. Certain that this was a logistical snafu, I suggested it was meant for another table and sent him away. But nope, it was our check, and he didn't let me wave it off when he returned a second time.
The most interesting thing about the pulled chicken club, meanwhile, was that it didn't feature pulled chicken. Postmodern culinary gambit or passive-aggressive belligerence? You decide.
Not everything was terrible. A cone of garlic fries gave off a bewitching aroma, and the sweet potato fries were quite good, as well. A crisp flatbread loaded with mild blue cheese, figs and prosciutto made for a pleasant snack.
A pretentious "flight" of seafood cocktails, on the other hand, was yet another total waste of money. At least the tiny, tasteless shrimp were sprinkled with lemon zest; neither the crab nor another piece of that dreadful lobster was dressed at all.
Tavern 17's physical connection to the Radisson is almost enough to make you wish the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation were empowered to shut it down. Pity the out-of-towner who ends up here.
Before forking my cash over to Server No. 3 (having noticed that Server No. 1 was still about), I asked him if the restaurant served dessert. "Yes, of course," said the man who'd given me the check midway through dinner.
"Well, why don't I have a look at the dessert menu, just for the hell of it."
But as the minutes started to tick by again and none appeared, I realized that it was time to leave Tavern 17. Forever.
220 S. 17th St.215-790-1799Sun.-Thu., 6:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6:30 a.m.-2 a.m.Appetizers, $4-$12; entrees, $8.50-$29.50