I have many fond memories of nights spent at The Blind Tiger. The building was usually grimy and smelled like mop water. The food was nothing memorable, the drinks were cheap and usually served in plastic cups, and the service was adequate given the large crowds that the bar attracted. And yet I can remember the exact moment I realized that it was one of my favorite watering holes in the city: when I stepped out of the back door into the courtyard. Twinkle lights, original brick walls, an outdoor bar, a chair swing that looked like it could fall apart at any moment, and people of all ages spilling beer and laughing, I loved every minute.
Unfortunately for those of us who had a soft spot for the original bar on Broad Street, it closed its doors last year. While the place was desperately in need of a makeover, the prospect of someone taking over the lease and turning it into some $14 craft beer, small batch whiskey from the middle of nowhere, locally sourced bitters, hipster bullshit bar was both infuriating and sad. Luckily for us, I think the Tiger may have avoided the empty rhetoric typical of modern bar updates.
Skating the line between a peaceful transition of power from old to new is not an undertaking that I envied of new owner Mike Shuler. The allure of being faithful to the original building had to have a strong influence on his current design because the new Tiger is largely unchanged save for a few small details. Many of the taxidermy animals behind the bar are gone, replaced by a massive, cartoonish tiger head that roars silently above patrons. The black and white tile floors have been replaced with a much cleaner looking wood that will hopefully hold the test of time. Last but not least, the patio has been given a massive facelift. Gone are the ugly wrought iron tables, replaced with two long wooden picnic tables, upholstered outdoor sectionals, and teak dining rounds. The whole look reads as clean and polished, an improvement over the previous arrangement.
The most obvious update to the Tiger is the menu. Instead of the typical bar fare of the previous establishment, patrons can enjoy oysters, cheese curds, a butcher's board, a plethora of salads, and six different types of sandwiches. The selection may be small but it is fierce.
The chargrilled oysters ($12/ half dozen) were the biggest surprise. These briny little beauties initially seemed out of place on the menu, but the inclusion of them was too intriguing to overlook. Akin to a plate of Oysters Rockefeller, the half dozen bivalves were small and salty, topped with melted butter, garlic, and herbs and baked with a layer of melted parmesan. The resulting taste was so good I had to remind myself that I was not in a raw bar or steakhouse. While I never thought I would utter this sentence, ordering oysters at the Blind Tiger is not a novelty, it's a necessity.
Smoked wings ($7/ half dozen) are another thankfully consistent appetizer. More sweet then spicy and served with creamy Alabama white sauce, the wings are as good as any dry rub batch I've had downtown.
Of the starters I tried, the only one that missed the mark was the Buffalo cheese curds ($8). While I do applaud the place for offering something that many other menus overlook, the cheese curds need a serious rework. Soggy and hard, I wasn't sure if the fault was with the recipe itself or the fact that the curds had been sitting too long. The flavor of the Buffalo sauce was not too spicy and well balanced, a shame considering that it was doused on flabby cheese.
The trend of bland cheese unfortunately continued with the heirloom burrata salad ($12). A generous helping of burrata was criminally undersalted and did not play well with the other elements of the salad. While it was meant to be the main feature, it masked the tomatoes, arugula, and balsamic reduction.
Luckily, the cheese dishes were the exception and not the trend. A warm smoked salmon salad ($12) merited a try. Arugula, shallots, fried fingerling potatoes, and a poached egg meshed so well with the fish that I couldn't even focus on the other dishes on the table. Smoky salmon, crispy potatoes, and the yolk of a perfectly poached egg converged as a holy trinity of complementary flavors. While the ratio of fish to everything else was mostly well proportioned, the amount of smoked salmon present in the salad was astounding for the price point. Yet another knockout that could comfortably exist on any high-end steakhouse's menu in the city.
Upon my server's recommendation, I tried the pub burger ($10) and the chicken avocado club ($11). The burger is the ultimate vintage Americana sandwich: a double patty stack with white American cheese, lettuce, pickles, tomato, special sauce, and bacon jam. The first bite felt like a lunch counter staple — greasy yet juicy beef with melty cheese on a toasted bun. It doesn't even matter that you can't order it to temperature due to the thin patties — you'll eat the whole thing anyway.
The avocado club didn't have the old-school notes of the burger, but made up for it with character. There is nothing revolutionary about grilled chicken with bacon, avocado, and cheese but serve it on crispy sourdough with a little black pepper mayo and you've got a solid sandwich. It's simple and comforting.
Truffle duck ($13) might just be the best of Blind Tiger's sandwiches. Tender duck confit, melted brie, and onion jam make for a decadent bite that in less capable hands would veer to the rich side. Instead, the duck has just enough flavor to complement the hint of truffle in the mayo and the onion delivers a sweet earthiness that prevents the sandwich from tasting too dense and heavy.
The outlier among the entrée sandwiches is the Angus steak frites ($17). While the portion is relatively small, the hangar steak has the consistency of a roasted filet and could practically be cut with a fork. The truffle frites are crispy and fresh, yet another nod to steakhouse-quality dishes. While I wouldn't exactly say that the Tiger is a destination for steak, it's a nice departure if you'd rather order a dish that doesn't require two hands to consume.
As reticent as I was to accept change at Blind Tiger, I have to admit that the transformation is for the better. It's not so much different as it is updated. While classic rock played previously, bluegrass now fills the speakers. Bar food has been replaced with more modern, upgraded fare at a decent price point. I suppose I could see some fans being upset that their dive bar on Broad has been cleaned and polished, but I fail to see how any of the changes have completely disrupted the original feel. It might not be the exact same Tiger as yesteryear, but it's still a casual bar with a great patio that now serves some pretty tasty food. Hopefully, the trend of paying homage to the original while still embracing the future is here to stay. It works so well at the Blind Tiger that I hope other bars and restaurants understand the value of upgrading versus overhauling.