Although it was on that corner forever, I never did get to Tubby's. Whenever I asked one of its regulars about it, I was always told that they liked it, but that they thought of it more as a local hangout with good pizza than a reviewable restaurant. Many of them had practically grown up there, and that comfy neighbourhood feeling was what kept them coming back.
Tubby's is gone now, replaced by The Grove, a real River Heights-Crescentwood local, so to speak. One which, given its present performance and burgeoning clientele, might become an equally durable institution, albeit with wider appeal.
The decor is identical in both pub and dining room. It's not your cosy Victoriana -- no little nooks and crannies, no comfy loveseats, no fireplace. Not much of anything, in fact, just big windows overlooking the street, and a spare setting of pale celadon walls with occasional accents of faux old timber. The only extras are a handsome wood-framed mirror and a few sparsely hung black-and-white photos that might actually be Victorian. Or at least Edwardian. Come to think of it, if the walls were plastered by more of those evocative old photographs the place might seem a lot cosier. Still, although at first I thought the ambience was cool, verging on cold, I found myself warming to it on a return visit.
The menu could use more than just four main courses, and most of the other options are more suitable for lunch or snacks than for dinner. Nevertheless there are several I'd be happy to make a meal of, most notably the appetizers, which were so good I was wishing there were more than just three ($8 to $9).
Chicken croquettes, for instance, that were crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside, with a bright red romesco sauce that was redolent of sun-dried tomatoes and red peppers. Or the particularly generous serving of panko-breaded fish bites, some of halibut, some of salmon, with a nice tartar sauce on the side (but avoid the watery and tasteless curry sauce).
Best of all, the superb slow-roasted Berkshire pork belly, a wonderful mix of soft and crisp, perched on a dab of pureed sweet potato and drizzled with a slightly sweet, slightly salty tare sauce. It came with a few mild house-made pickles, but also, sadly, in a relatively small portion.
For a main course, think fish and chips -- a slab of halibut in thin crackling batter, with great fries, and a choice of curry or tartar sauce, as well as malt vinegar ($17). Or bangers and mash -- the onions on top weren't sautéed long enough to get rid of a boiled taste, and the mash could have used more butter, but the sausages themselves were big, juicy and tasty ($15). Cottage pie -- ground beef with carrots and peas, topped by whipped potatoes -- was merely so-so, needing a lot more seasoning, and a more flavourful gravy to bind it ($17). The only other (unsampled) main course was a vegetable pie in puff pastry ($14).
The remainder of the menu concentrates on sarnies -- a U.K. term for sandwiches -- and pizzas ($9 to $11). Personally, I prefer my burgers with just ketchup and relish -- no lettuce, no tomato, no mayo, no Bothwell cheddar and no onions (unless they're fried), all of which are part of the Grove's version. But that said, this one was terrific -- a super-thick patty that oozed beefy juices and was packed with flavour. Also tops, sandwiches filled with roasted rib eye that was moist, tender and even slightly pink in parts, or with chicken salad in curry mayonnaise with arugula, both on good ciabatta. Prices include either those excellent fries or the also excellent house or caesar salads.
It seemed only proper to honour the predecessor's much-praised pizza by trying the Grove's version, and to choose the one that was dubbed The Tubby, which was generously topped by salami, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms and peppers. And it was good, too.
The few desserts have varied daily but the sticky toffee pudding seems to be a constant -- hot, saucy and simply scrumptious. Lighter but equally wonderful is a tart of tangy lemon curd on a cookie-like crust.
Of course there's a wide choice of beers, among them countless premium domestic draught beers, as well as domestic bottles and a selection of imports ($4.25 to $6.25 the pint). The wines are well selected too, and most are available by the glass, in either five- or eight-ounce sizes.
But if the bar had stocked nothing else it would have won my heart with the Pimm's Cup, a favourite I first had in London, and have never found locally, not even in places that call themselves pubs -- a refreshingly cool concoction of gin and lemonade, garnished with mint and slices of cucumber ($6).
Staff were so friendly and attentive I couldn't be sure I wasn't recognized, but I've been told that they are friendly and attentive with everybody.
Open daily at 11 a.m., until midnight on weekdays, and 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
The Grove Pub and Restaurant
164 Stafford St., 415-3262
HHHH out of five