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East Side Bar and Grille

What's old is new again — and still in style
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  April 29, 2009
2.0 2.0 Stars

STEAKING A CLAIM? The steak tips are certainly very, very good: not too chewy, with lots of beef flavor.

East Side Bar and Grille | 561 Cambridge Street, East Cambridge | 617.661.3278 | Open Tuesday–Friday, 11:30 am–10 pm; Saturday, 1 pm–10 pm; and Sunday, 11 am–10 pm | Full bar | Access two steps up to bar tables, up a few more to dining room | No valet parking
Back in the day, a certain brand of bar-restaurant served Greater Boston neighborhoods well with plentiful food: fried seafood, steaks and chops, and usually some Italian-American dishes. Many have deteriorated into pizza places or sports bars, or have been bistroized since then. A few have hung on, generally outside the urban center. The East Side Bar and Grille — not to be confused with the East Coast Grill or the West Side Lounge — may fit that bill, but it's only a couple of years old. So it is actually a loving revival of those unpretentious neighborhood spots of yore. The claim to fame on a sign out front is BEST STEAK TIPS IN TOWN. Not best steak, best steak tips. I can never resist a sign like that, so in we went.

One steps into a bar that isn't as crowded as it looks, or goes back behind a red scrim and up a few more steps to a small dining room. Celebrity pictures hang on the wall; the soundtrack is Frank Sinatra, Vic Damone, and, yes, TheGodfather theme music. Nothing is far from the kitchen, and that can be important. On two early-evening visits, service was quick and friendly.

The breadbasket is of a piece. It's white bread, but crusty, hot, and melting inside. This trick is usually done with a pizza oven, but it never fails to impress. An appetizer of sautéed calamari ($9.95) has plenty of garlicky sauce to sop up. Escarole soup with meatballs ($3.95/cup; $5.95/bowl) has tons of greens and meatballs, but a somewhat weak stock. Clam "chowda" ($4.95; $6.95) is served in a hollowed-out toasted bread "bowl." There may be too much starch — it's thick, with a lot of potatoes — but the clam flavor is excellent. A crab-cake appetizer ($9.95) was also a little stodgy, again with excellent seafood flavor, and decorated with a grilled shrimp and a whole sea scallop. I have a feeling someone identified me as a critic, though, so I can't guarantee you'll get the same garnish.

Real starch hounds should try the "Toasted Ravioli" ($7.95), technically half-moon agnolottis that are breaded and fried. The portion is impressive; the dip is a cold marinara that I found a bit too sweet. But until they deep fry pierogi, this is the acme of starch, relieved only by a touch of ricotta and a smidge of residual frying oil for flavor.

Okay, what about the steak tips ($16.95)? Are they the "best in town"? Well, let's keep that to Cambridge, or maybe just East Cambridge — there are a wicked lot of steak tips out there. These are certainly very, very good: medium as ordered, not too chewy, lots of beef flavor, with a heap of tasty sauce/marinade, none of it burned. The default side dish is a basic salad with some grape tomatoes and Caesar or Greek dressing, both reliable. Or you could have excellent garlicky sautéed broccoli, or the less garlicky but flavorful spinach. But you really should try the wonderful inch-wide onion rings.

The real standard for a restaurant of this type is pork chops with vinegar green-cherry peppers and oven-fried potatoes ($17.95). The potatoes could have more crust, but this is a dish so savory you pretty much inhale it. "Grilled Wild Swordfish" ($18.95) is a menu description that makes me giggle. It's hard to imagine farming swordfish. How would you get the prize one to the county fair? What would the other kids in the 4-H club think? And for tame swordfish, you would need an awfully long leash. So, with no possible comparison, I would say that the steak at East Side Bar and Grille had that delightful, wild swordfish taste, and was a fresh, well-handled piece of seafood.

The wine list is not amazing, though the wines we had were pleasant with food. Pepperwood merlot ($6 glass/$24 bottle) is not from Argentina, as the list says, but it is a full-bodied California merlot with enough fruit and spice to drink with pizza. Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells riesling ($8; $28) is even better, an off-dry German-style riesling loaded with aroma. It tastes sweeter than it is because of all the fruit. I think Pacific Northwest whites are undervalued, and suggest ordering lots of them before the vineyards tear out the vines to plant pinot noir and make awkward, expensive reds.

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Related: Ristorante Damiano, Bina Osteria, Teranga, More more >
  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Frank Sinatra, Culture and Lifestyle, Beverages,  More more >
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