published Thursday, January 9th, 2014

Dave’s Modern menu still tasty in Monteagle

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    Crab cakes are a specialty at Dave’s Modern Tavern on Monteagle Mountain. This special of the day is a burger made with crab cakes, lettuce, tomato, pickles and sweet chile sauce served with a side of fresh-cut fries.

Dave James moved his popular Chattanooga Valley eatery, Dave’s Modern Cafe, up to Monteagle Mountain five years ago, renaming it Dave’s Modern Tavern. But the name was the only change. It continues to be a popular destination, serving an eclectic menu filled with choices from Southern barbecue, a touch of Cajun and Creole, as well as much-loved American favorites, all made from scratch to tempt your taste buds.

THE MENU

There are a number of burger choices on the menu, all with names that reflect areas around Monteagle Mountain, such as the Gruetli-Laager burger (Swiss cheese and sauteed mushrooms), Church Street burger (avocado, mushrooms, goat cheese and black pepper/garlic mayo), Fiery Gizzard burger (bacon, cheddar and sriracha ketchup) and Old 41 burger (your basic cheeseburger with American cheese). All burgers are hand-patted and served with house-made chips. There’s also a patty melt, something you don’t see on every tavern-style menu.

The menu also features a nice selection of main-dish salads: top picks being the fried oyster Caesar salad and another made with crab meat and crispy asparagus on a bed of tender greens. Barbecue is smoked out back and comes in the form of a traditional smoked pork plate with coleslaw and potato salad, or you can opt for a fall-off-the-bone rack of ribs.

The beef tenderloin is the most expensive item on the menu at $24; it comes with vegetable of the day and potatoes. But another beef dish caught my eye, reminding me of the creative edge James adds to his menu. Crying Tiger is grilled marinated beef served on a bed of greens with Thai dipping sauce and basmati rice.

You’ll also find a number of pasta dishes with various additions such as shrimp and andouille sausage with marinara; scallops in roasted tomato-fennel sauce; and chicken with pesto and roasted peppers.

THE ORDER

One thing you’ll always find on the menu is James’ incredible crab cakes — in one incarnation or another. Served with house-made roumelade, they are a menu standard, though sometimes you’ll also find them as the daily special. Such was the case on the day of my visit, when they were served on a bun with lettuce, tomato, pickle and a drizzling of sweet chile sauce, along with a side of hot, freshly cut fries. That’s what I chose.

The crab cakes are one of James’ specialties, as I well remember from his restaurant in Chattanooga. The binding and seasonings create a nice balance without overwhelming the delicate flavor of the crab meat. The cake is quite large and thick, fitting the artisan bun on which it was served. At $14, it is more expensive than a traditional burger, but this one goes well beyond tradition. It’s a solid choice for any seafood lover.

THE SERVICE

It was a chilly day when the seven of us, plus a rowdy 9-month-old, arrived on top of the mountain, but we were warmed by a welcoming smile from our server. Once we were seated and our drink and food orders had been placed, it took just a few minutes before our appetizer, made-from-scratch guacamole, and warm homemade bread arrived. Another 15 minutes and we were enjoying our lunch. Drinks were refilled as needed.

THE SPACE

James transformed an old service station into a charming tavern. Signs of its former life remain in a few places, such as a garage door in the bar area, where the concrete floor is still painted with the yellow stripes used to mark bays for vehicles needing repair. The garage’s high ceiling allowed room for James to construct a loft for bird’s-eye views overlooking a handmade pine bar and porch. Its screens let in cool breezes in summer; they’re covered in winter to keep the chill away.

The main dining room is painted with neutral colors highlighted by natural wood moldings, a mix of framed artwork and tables clad in white paper tablecloths and linen napkins. A large cooler along one wall displays the 100-plus beers and some of the wines the tavern offers.

There is also a separate room for private parties should the need arise. And James is planning to develop and landscape a large side yard for warm-weather outdoor gatherings.

THE VERDICT

The lifeblood of most restaurants on Monteagle depends on the population at Sewanee’s University of the South. When school’s in session, particularly when parents come to visit, Dave’s Modern Tavern is hopping. But locals have found the atmosphere, plus a menu that’s really different from any other in the area, to be a place where they can entertain guests or gather for a football game and cold beer. Check out the tavern’s Facebook page to see what people are saying. My Nashville sister and I have made it our go-to meeting place. It’s the perfect halfway point for a delicious lunch — and not too far from Chattanooga for a change of pace for dinner.

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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