The cocktails at this Downtown tapas spot are not to be missed, while the food is both delicious and confounding.
Editor's note: Sidebar is currently open for carryout lunch orders and patio dining and plans to reopen for dinner service as of May 21.
Just as there are two sides to every story, there are two distinct sides to Downtown’s 9-year-old tapas restaurant, Sidebar.
On one side is the bar program, a worthy draw in its own right with cocktails as well composed as they are interesting. Take the Just a Pomelo ($12), a balancing act of smoky mezcal and blanco tequila with floral bitters, a frothy egg white float and enough grapefruit and lime to be potent but not puckery. One sip and it’s clear as crystal that great care is put into every element behind the imposing wooden bar. That includes house bitters, shrubs, juices and infusions, some that take days to make.
On the other side is the lengthy tapas menu with the reliability of a minefield. Step right and you’ll be rewarded with the perfect, caramelized grill marks of a tender pork skewer ($10) doused in a pleasantly acidic garlic-cilantro chimichurri. Step wrong and you’ll suffer the consequence of an overcooked mahi-mahi or flavorless omelet.
The restaurant feels at odds with itself. Is it a great cocktail bar that serves solid small plates? Or an average tapas restaurant with an exceptional bar program? For the best experience, I’d argue to treat it as the former. Because what can be counted on, without fail, are the drinks.
Begin your meal with the little show that is the Right Hand Man ($13). Served in a ceramic tiki glass, it’s accompanied by a tiny cup made of dehydrated lime that’s filled with booze and lit on fire upon arrival (just be sure to blow out the flame before the straw melts). The drink itself is just as dazzling, with the tropical acidic backbone of pineapple-lime shrub mixed with coconut and rum. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Pour Excellence ($12) starts as a bitter bomb and then opens up like a glass of wine as the oversized ice cube melts. There’s an undercurrent of caramel from the coffee-infused reposado tequila that plays nicely with the bittersweetness of amaro and sweet vermouth.
Since opening in 2011, Sidebar has undergone many transformations—changes in ownership (including a brief closing), staff turnover in both the kitchen and bar, and, more recently, I’m told, changes to the menu itself to focus more heavily on tapas, with dishes inspired by chef and owner Alberto Tapia’s South American heritage, plus a dash of Spanish flavor here and there. This lengthy list of tapas takes up more than half the menu (a few salads and pizzas round out the offerings) and are smartly priced and sized to share.
After my first visit, I couldn’t wait to return. I thought I’d stumbled upon some hidden gem that those who live or work nearby were smartly keeping to themselves. Our server was charming and so enthusiastic that we willingly shifted to the passenger seat when ordering, heeding her advice to delicious results.
She steered us toward the not-to-be-missed chilled causa de pollo ($10), a classic Peruvian dish that impressed with its clean layers of creamy golden potato mash, lemony chicken salad and briny olives, with a subtle pulse of gingery-pepper heat that made each bite come alive like an electric shock. If it were socially acceptable, I would have picked up the heaping bowl of mussels al diablo ($14) and drunk the tomato-heavy broth dotted with spicy peppers and fistfuls of cilantro. (Make good use of the sliced bread and spoon cleverly served alongside.) But then the equally flaky and crispy beef empanadas ($11), filled with finely ground beef finessed to a deep savory stew, stole the show. I’d order them again, just to eat the accompanying rocoto sauce laced with ginger.
The second visit was so confusing, I wondered if I had stumbled into a different restaurant. The meal itself started with the promise of well-fried, crisp chicken croquettes ($9) and a textbook ceviche mixto ($13) of red snapper, octopus and shrimp—all milky white and tender after a long soak in a lime-heavy leche de tigre, a Peruvian marinade.
But then the wheels fell off. Sidebar’s interpretation of Spanish tortilla ($9) was a closer kin to corrugated cardboard than the glorious, silky potato and egg omelet that graces tapas menus all over Spain. Completely lacking in salt, the potatoes had been overcooked to mush and the eggs to rubber. Not much better can be said for the pan-seared mahi-mahi ($12), which was so dry as to be chewy and couldn’t even be saved by the succulent, garlicky tomato and onion sauce with sweet roasted peppers. Served in their own sauce, beef short ribs ($14) tasted as if they’d been neglected, not braised long enough to be tender and not stringy.
Redemption arrived on the third visit when Sidebar came alive on a Tuesday evening. Those in the know cut out of work early on Tuesdays to snag a seat in the bar, because between 5 and 7 p.m. servers distribute course after course (typically five in all) of small plate specials, all free of charge, as long as you’re imbibing.
A recent lineup included a cracker-crisp tortilla folded over and bursting with soft shrimp, corn, jalapeño and onion; breaded and thin-pounded chicken with mashed potatoes; and a delicious, if a touch over-starched, mushroom risotto. For their simplicity, there was ample finesse to these gratis specials: not fancy, but well-cooked and seasoned and delicious accompaniments to drinks. Where was this restaurant on my second dinner? Too often, the execution of the food doesn’t reflect the potential of the kitchen.
For all its stumbles, dessert is a surefooted move at Sidebar. The tres leches ($8) is a candylike vanilla cake soaked through like a sponge with evaporated milk sweetness and a boozy edge of Grand Marnier. Rich and creamy, flan de coco ($7) is a tropical spin on the classic with the texture of buttercream and deep nutty taste of real caramel.
Sidebar occupies the first and second floor of a four-story brick building. Around the edges are the historical charms of exposed red brick and creaky stairs. The finishings somehow feel more dated than the building itself, stuck in a dowdy era of brown geometric patterns, which cover the walls and upholstered seats of chairs. Colorful Picasso replicas and music from the Buena Vista Social Club do lift the atmosphere a bit. Meanwhile, the bar, with its dark wood accents, has an almost speakeasy vibe—yet another reason why this part of Sidebar deserves your attention.