‘Hey, this looks like my dad’s rec room,” said my date, scanning the darkened premises as we entered the Commodore. “Danish modern hanging lamps and padded bar stools with backs, beamed ceiling, a circular booth in the corner, and a bar as long as the basement would allow,” she continued, cheerfully ticking off the common attributes. The Commodore doesn’t look like much from the outside, either, resembling the kind of signless corner bar where the patronage is confined to regulars and you may find your welcome colder than the beer.
But the Commodore is yet another of Williamsburg’s theme restaurants, and a pretty good one at that—though the theme is as muddled as the mint in one of the bar’s juleps. The name suggests a nautical motif, but that’s confined to the cocktail menu, which looks to mixed drinks of the past for inspiration. Jesus, they’re strong! In crude line drawings, these cocktails are depicted on a placemat with the ingredients scrupulously listed beneath, as if the mayor himself had demanded it. There’s the self-titled Commodore, an achingly sweet piña colada with Amaretto poured on top. (The placemat calls the liqueur a “float,” but it’s more of a “sink.”) At the opposite end of the sugary spectrum, find the Boat Drink—a hyper-dry concoction of dark rum and soda, with just a dash of lime juice.
Skip both and try one of my faves: the Trailways (grapefruit juice, vodka, sugar, and mint). If it had a piece of bacon, it would cover all the food groups. Or assay the Tequila Banderas, a meta-cocktail composed of three overflowing shots (horseradish-laced tomato juice, bottled lime juice, and white tequila). The bolting sequence is entirely up to you, or request a glass and mix all three together in whatever proportion you desire. Among the 16 drinks on the placemat, you’re sure to find a few likable ones to linger over in the Commodore’s dark recesses. The best part: All cocktails are priced from $7 to $9.
While the theme of the cocktail menu may be nominally nautical, the food strays into the usual Williamsburg retro-Southern-locavoric-hash-house fare, pioneered at places like Egg and Pies-N-Thighs. That’s because the Commodore’s chef—a corner bar has a chef?—is Stephen Tanner, who has cooked at both establishments. The menu is still in flux, but continues to be a wacky combo of standard tavern fare and farmers’-market provender. Let’s begin with the bar food.
The hamburger is splendid: dense, mayo-smeared, tomatoed, well-pickled, and compact enough to hold in one hand while you grasp your cocktail in the other. It costs a mere $5. Eat two and you won’t be able to order anything else. But then you might miss the massive plate of french fries ($4). Short of being cooked in goose fat, they’re as good as you’ll ever get in a bar. There’s also something quizzically called an “adult cheese.” The sandwich is toasted on the outside, but when you bite into it, a lumpy and creamy filling oozes out that doesn’t taste much like actual cheese. You’ll either adore it or detest it.
The greenmarket-driven section of the menu astonished my date on our first visit with its dish of ramps and asparagus ($6). They arrived nicely cooked in a glistening tangle. “Never seen ramps in a bar,” I mused. “Ramps and asparagus? What an odd pairing,” she continued. When the ramps finally ran out last month, the dish turned into asparagus with a gooey-centered hard-boiled egg. There’s also an unfailingly good green salad, sporting a sharp dressing and featuring arugula topped with shaved white cheese.
As at Pies-N-Thighs, chicken is prominently flogged, in a similar brined and skinless (but still heavily crusted) rendition. Let’s call it Williamsburg chicken. You can have an outsize breast wedged in a hamburger bun, either spicy or not ($9). Increasingly, south-of-the-border dishes have crept onto the menu, which may indicate the influence of the Mexican cooks in the kitchen—through which you must pass to get to the Commodore’s mosquito-infested backyard. “Green chili hominy with chicken” ($6) turned out to be one of the best pozoles I’ve eaten lately. Also in a Mexican vein, and replacing an annoying pulled-pork sandwich on white bread that instantly became soggy, there have recently been excellent tacos filled with green-chile pork.
With its off-price cocktails, familiar interior, and cheap and sometimes excellent bar food, it’s almost impossible not to adore the Commodore. Just be sure to top off Dad’s booze bottles with a little water and food coloring before you leave the rec room.