It feels like an old-style bar car on an Amtrak train, minus the cigarette smoke — one long, narrow room chugging forward with camaraderie. In the case of Brooks Tavern, the restaurant’s quick popularity fuels the momentum. Opened late last year, the place was overflowing on a recent bitterly cold night. And it wasn’t even the weekend.
Tucked in the ground floor of the eponymous antique building on Third Avenue — circa 1917 or 1925, according to competing calculations — the small space is heavy with atmosphere. Part of that comes from closely packed bodies — but the pub has a vaguely aristocratic vibe, too, thanks to a handsome coffered ceiling and period appointments from the Jazz Age. “Purveyors of Good Food, Giggle Water and More,” it says on the mirror behind the bar, referencing a Prohibition-era slang term for alcohol.
The purveyors are Mark Lowe and Hendersonville native Cindy Johnson Lowe, who met storybook-style, finding unexpected love after their previous spouses passed away. The once-long-distance relationship climaxed in the carpe-diem idea to open a restaurant together — a first for Mark, though he’s got a degree in Hospitality Management and years of experience in the industry. With Cindy, he developed a menu of favorites culled from their U.S. travels; in the kitchen, Billy Howard and Jose Castillo bring these notions to life. A cheery fusion marks many of the dishes, including Buffalo Chicken eggrolls on the appetizer list and a Turkey Apple Brie sandwich.
The star sandwich, though, is the Monte Cristo, an item every upscale-casual pub should offer, though it’s easy to see why most don’t: with its contrasting textures, it’s not an easy thing to get right. But Brooks Tavern nails it, offering raspberry dipping sauce in place of the traditional marmalade. The ham, turkey, and melted gouda are loaded onto French Toast, and the whole thing is deep fried: it’s a clever Southern touch that prevents the sandwich from getting soggy (the downfall of lesser Monte Cristos).
Steak, skillet trout in garlic-butter white-wine sauce, and chicken two ways (BBQ-grilled or fried) comprise the entrees. Everything, including the kids’ menu and a template of build-your-own burgers, is reasonably priced.
Mark emphasizes that he and Cindy use Certified Angus Beef. “Very few restaurants in the area use CAB,” he says, “not to mention [ours is] fresh instead of frozen.” Another quality bump is the so-called “imperial pour,” a rare treat: draft beer at Brooks Tavern is served in 20-ounce glasses, not the standard 16 ounces, or, worse, the stingy 12-ounce “pints” passed off in some places.
“You can call them Imperial Pints or Standard Pints with a bonus of 4 ounces,” says Mark. “The bottom line is, you’re always getting 20 ounces for the price of 16 [here].”
Dessert is still in the TBA phase, as the Lowes confer with local bakeries about options. Otherwise, they’re already deep in a groove, attracting crowds that the owners estimate are about 75 percent local, plus getting great online reviews for service. Bartender/server Reynaldo “Rey” Guerra, whom Mark agrees is “fantastic,” emotes a mix of efficiency and real warmth that will serve the entrepreneurs well as they continue to grow their business.
“Grow” in the figurative sense, that is — because the tavern’s pocket dimensions are a major part of its charm. In the front window, the world’s tiniest stage is set up for performances by local singer/songwriters. A single row of booths sits parallel to the long bar and well within murmuring distance (at least on a quiet night). Besides looking tidy, these logistics enhance the restaurant’s simpatico flavor. It’s a nice change from the roomy coldness that marks other fashionable establishments.
If the air seems thick, there’s also that rumor about ghosts in the lower regions of the old building. “A past tenant stopped by one day and was amazed to see what we’ve done with the space,” says Mark. “She asked about the basement, if I ever go down there.” Well, yes — it’s where the Lowes have their walk-in coolers, dry storage, office quarters, and liquor supply.
“I told her I would be more than happy to show her, but she flat-out refused to go. She said it was haunted — that she had seen, heard, and felt things down there.”
He’s not a believer — not yet. On the other hand, he didn’t get successful by not taking risks. “I haven’t felt anything,” Mark admits. “But you know the old saying: never say never.”
Brooks Tavern (142 Third Ave. West, Hendersonville) is open Sunday through Thursday from 11am-11pm and Friday and Saturday from 11am-12am. For more information, see Brooks Tavern on Facebook or call 828-595-9994.