Back when the SouthSide Works was the site of production, not just consumption, the walls of the great mill buildings loomed over East Carson Street, emphasizing the divide between work on one side and recreation -- which is to say block after block of workers' bars -- on the other.
Now, of course, the steel behemoths have been replaced with ersatz Victorian shops and apartments, and the all-night clangor by the splashing of a politely playful little fountain. Recreation is now the name of the game on both sides of the street.
Still, the experience is not the same. The newer buildings house mostly chain stores and such 21st-century businesses as teeth-whitening salons; the older side of the street still features some of the gritty steel-town character of the iconic old South Side. There, a number of historic buildings have been spruced up to take advantage of increased foot traffic, and one historic business, the Mill Site Tavern, still stands, a survivor from the days before tattoo parlors and tiki bars.
Actually, the Tavern did close down for a while after the mills went away, and one of the building's walls eventually collapsed. But it has reopened after heroic efforts to restore the building by the family who owned it. The original bar features glossy black wainscoting and details such as a tile gutter where, these days, a brass-rail footrest might be. An old keg system boasts a pair of glass beehives in the bar area, now defunct curiosities. Best of all, the original neon Mill Site Tavern sign still hangs in the window. There is now a new wing off the old bar, spanned by a black steel beam over a stage and a dance floor.
The Tavern's menu has expanded as well. The Mill Site still serves up burgers and beer, but we doubt the mill workers ever swilled an Iron City to wash down a wrap.
Our meal began with good old-fashioned deep-fried pub grub: onion rings, chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks and jalapeño poppers. The onion rings were exactly what onion rings should be: juicy tender onion in a slightly sweet breading so crispy, each bite could be heard across the table. The fried chicken planks and cheese sticks also benefited from this extraordinary breading, while the jalapeño poppers further distinguished themselves by featuring rich, melted cream cheese instead of the typical nacho-cheese-food-product inside.
Crab cakes also came from the fryer, with a throwback style that mid-century millworkers would have recognized. Seasonings, and chunks of peppers and celery, contributed as much flavor as the crab itself.
If the Tavern's sandwiches and burgers are contemporary concoctions, their names keep the old industrial vocabulary alive. Passing over the Slag Burger, Jason chose the Bucket Wheel BBQ Burger, laden with more of those onion rings, crisp bacon and the Tavern's smoky, sweet sauce. The burger was a loosely packed patty, which promotes good charring, and the rings remained crisp even under the sauce. In all, a flavorful and filling creation.
Angelique had a Combustion Cajun Chicken Wrap with chunks of grilled poultry, peppers and onions wrapped together in a warm pita. The Combustion sauce was aptly named, she reflected as she medicated her mouth with cold beer between bites. The pepper heat was not so strong it incinerated the vivid Cajun flavor, though the vegetables were quite overwhelmed. The pita -- soft, spongy and substantial -- kept it all together. On the side, a heaping mound of French fries were just as mightily crispy as everything else we tried from Mill Site's deep fryer.
In keeping with its roots, the Mill Site Tavern has no pretensions to fine dining; it doesn't even offer entrees. What it does offer is some clever nostalgia and good old-fashioned bar food, prepared with quality ingredients. Perhaps old-school style, a big dance floor and the best fryer in town will help the old South Side flourish with the new.
JR: 3 stars
AB: 3 stars