'It will be an hour for a table . . . ."
That used to be the line hostesses gave when they wanted you to give up - defeated - before you even started. Rarely was it ever actually going to be an hour - unless, of course, it came with a withering stare from one of the infamous list-ticking sirens at Village Whiskey. But at least there it was worth the wait.
You are likely to get a more wholesome reading of that same line from the apple-cheeked hostess at the Cambridge, the handsome new gastropub on sizzling South Street West. And despite your most optimistic hopes as you survey the 70-some seats among the busy room's weathered wood banquettes, the scrolling woodwork on the back bar, exposed plaster walls, Edison bulbs, and mahogany - accents that given the former Tritone's grunge a stylish look of salvage chic - an hour here on Friday night really is an hour. And so was the more promising "20 minutes" on a Tuesday night. I stood along the narrow back-bar rail and sipped my way through an hour-long holding pattern then, too.
Such is life, of course, in one of the hottest stretches of emerging nightlife in Philly. And in a year that saw South Street West truly begin to blossom with staying power and some diversity (Magpie, a pie shop; Rex 1516, a Southern bistro; Sawatdee, a Thai BYO), the Cambridge is the one space with "anchor" potential that has most captured the neighborhood's gentrifying young urban soul.
And here's the good news: The waiting is the best part, because the Cambridge's best assets - all liquid - are on full display, from a vibrant roster of coveted craft beers to solid cocktails and even some very good Fleet Street wines that will be familiar to anyone who shops at Moore Brothers.
The bad news: The reward for that waiting for once you're seated is far less inspired, unless you don't mind food that's burned or heavy and dark with fryer grease.
That the Cambridge should excel in both style points and libations is no surprise. It's in the DNA of owners Chris Fetfatzes and Heather Annechiarico, the likable young married couple who also opened Hawthornes Cafe, the dynamic bruncherie and vast craft-beer bottle shop, in a space formerly occupied by the Fetfatzes family's Bella Vista Beer Distributor.
And brew geeks will find a constantly changing parade of excellent brewery names on the Cambridge's 24 ever-changing tap handles (Bell's, Stillwater, Nogne-O, Dieu du Ciel, Bellegems) and a bottle list dedicated to one of my favorite new topics: serious sour ales (Tilquin, Jolly Pumpkin, BFM). Our bartender also showed perfect balance with her Sazerac and Boulevardier - which made up for too much fig in the Sidecar twist.
What's most disappointing is that the Cambridge's menu, built on ambitious in-house preparations, is turned out with such careless execution.
I might have loved the Asian-styled pulled pork sandwich called Sensei Kris had the tender shreds of confit-cooked pork not been reheated on the plancha to a crispy black. The towering meat loaf sandwich layered atop an onion-poppy roll with a fried egg? Burned to a char. Even the lightly curried cauliflower florets that accompanied the dry fillet of salmon were roasted briquette-black.
It is not an especially good sign when one of the most memorable dishes at a place that plays with pork bellies, fried birds, and stewed ham hocks is actually the nachos with vegan chili. But I was plenty surprised when we could not stop eating the mountain of freshly fried tortilla chips layered with vegan sausage stew, tangy salsa verde, fresh guac, and three very non-vegan cheeses (cheddar, fontina, and sharp provolone). Then again, after an hour of waiting and drinking, we were famished when it arrived.
There were some other worthy bites. The octopus was impressively tender and crisped on the grill alongside a classic garnish of cannellini beans. The charred brussels sprouts came with a nice twist of sunchoke chips and shaved Parmesan. The smoked, cheese-stuffed Anaheim pepper was also notably tasty, even if the pepper was spicier than expected and encased in an overly thick crust that, merely by slicing, triggered a cheese explosion.
I also loved the Porker, a ground patty of brined pork butt topped with sharp provolone, broccoli rabe, and long hots for a perfect South Philly ode to the burger. The Cambridge's beef burger of dry-aged chuck, custom blended by grinder guru Larry Feldman from Exceptional Foods, was also excellent. I only wish it hadn't been so overcooked, and that the daring house combo for the "Cambridge Hall" had paired its topping of wine-poached pear with a Brie that melted better than rubber.
Some dishes showed potential, but needed tweaks. The mac-and-cheese was fresh and creamy, but the short rib nuggets hidden inside were too chewy. The pork belly had a nice cure that left a savor of clove, but the smudge of pumpkin-pie puree on the plate was a jarringly odd pairing. I might have liked the pierogi of the day had they been stuffed, as promised, with a more obvious helping of blood sausage - ours was scattered with crumbles of something gray and sausage-like, but morcilla is typically deep black. I also appreciated the effort that went into infusing flavor into the chicken wings, brined in hot sauce and garlic for two days before being roasted and fried. But ours were oddly dry and juiceless.
Of even more concern, though, were the deep-fried items that are so prominent here. Who can resist the notion of fried chicken on a silver platter? We couldn't, especially because it came with a crock of great smoked Gouda mac-and-cheese. But our whole bird had been left in the fryer way too long, and the wildly seasoned thick crust had taken on the hue and crunch of mahogany armor. Ditto for the massive boneless hunk of fried thigh for the BLT, which had the added hitch of a thick blade of bacon that stubbornly refused to snap between my teeth.
The Cambridge's generous fish and chips was so dark and heavy with fryer grease, it would sink before it swam. Oddly, the batter below its shiny crunch was like soggy padding between the crust and fish. Even the fried Snickers bar - an homage to the old Tritone - had been left too long in the oil. The center was nothing but runny ooze and nuts.
The frustration with these meals is that everything is in place at the Cambridge - from its smart look to the world-class beers and even the appealing ideas on the menu - for this South Street hot spot to step into the league of Philly's best gastropubs. The eager crowds are there. But clearly, the kitchen needs to pay more attention to what lands on the plate.
Otherwise, we might have looked more chipper when the waitress approached our table of half-eaten plates and asked, oddly: "Are you defeated?"
It must have been obvious. The food simply had not been worth the wait.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at philly.com.