I've been to Big City 100s of times, yet I've never been here for lunch. Their lunch prices are pretty high, and I usually like to use lunch to try new places around town. But since they're opening a new Italian restaurant down the road, I wanted to try some Italian food. While I don't think it's a very good idea to name a big new restaurant after a guy who has never even put a menu together before, I felt that I should at least try some of his food before mocking the idea. They only have 2 Italian dishes on their menu; Rigatoni Bolognese and Orecchiette, Sausage and Rapini (aka Broccolii Rabe). I hadn't had pasta at Big City in 5 years. They used to have "angel hair pasta with fresh tomatoes, olive oil and herbs" that I had once, and it was just a soupy mess. I've seen the bolognese a few times and it appears that they still make pasta soup so I've avoided ordering it. So I went to lunch with the intention of ordering the Sausage/Rapini dish.
I suspect that I'm going to be accused of a pre-planned hit job for this, but that is never my intention. From the description on the menu, I expected it to be wrong, but I'll never, ever say that I don't like something if I do. There's more than one way to skin a cat.
To get an understanding of how things work at corporate restaurants, a progression of this offering under the tutelage of Louie Bossi is illuminating. Realize that the point of this dish is the pairing of the bitter Rapini and the Spicy Sausage; I prefer it with hot sausage while many recipes use sweet sausage with pepper flakes.
The Original Offering:
Orecchiette Pasta, House Made Spicy Lamb Sausage, Rapini, Tomato, Mint, Garlic White Wine Sauce...14.00
The initial recipe was just a bad attempt to make a good dish better, with "lamb" sausage. I guess the Mint paired with the lamb. The recipe made no sense. A few months later they changed it:
Orecchiette Pasta, Italian Sausage, Rapini, Tomato, Mint, Garlic White Wine Sauce...14.50
Of course they went from lamb sausage to "Italian" sausage, but for some reason they left in the mint. The current offering is described as follows:
Orecchiette Pasta, Italian Sausage, Rapini, Tomato, Basil, Garlic White Wine Sauce...$14.50
They finally realized that they forgot to get rid of the mint. Understanding the standard recipe for this dish is important to see what's been done. The standard recipe creates a sauce from Olive Oil (EVOO), the fat from the Sausage and Garlic and a bit of water from cooking the Rapini. Here, they probably par-cook the sausage so you don't get the fat from the sausage in the corporate dish. And EVOO is too expensive. So they've concocted a "garlic wine sauce" to replace the sauce you'd get in a real italian restaurant.
Lets be clear; the changes made to the recipe are not to improve it; the changes were made to increase margins, or to make it easier to make. That's how things work in big, corporate kitchens.
I got there at 2:12 and got a seat on the patio; nice view with the only negative being the screaming babies. Note that they only serve their lunch menu until 2:30; after than it's just pizza, salads and sandwiches.>
Big City Tavern Patio View
One server brought me a menu and took my iced tea order, but then another came over and said she'd be serving me. She was going to leave without telling me the specials; something I've been mentioning for 4 years now. "Oh yes, we do have specials", as she proceeded to rattle off about 6 specials. Why is it so hard to remember to tell customers the specials?
She brought my tea with an entire lemon, it seems, and I ordered the Sausage/Rapini dish.
Big City Tavern Iced Tea
They keep the glass doors shut, so you can't hear the music from inside. They have bread here but like the specials, you have to ask for it or you don't get any; and I forgot to ask. I didn't see my server until my food came out, so I didn't get a chance to get any.
It took 25 minutes for my food to be served, which is a long time to wait at an empty table. The good news is that the babies were gone, so I could eat in peace.
Big City Tavern Patio
When she put the dish in front of me, I literally snickered. Oh man, this was worse than I could have imagined.
Big City Tavern Rapini, Sausage and Orecchiette
First of all, where was the Sausage and Rapini? The entire point of this dish is the sausage and the rapini; this was 70% pasta. And what kind of pasta was this; this was NOT Orecchiette. Orecchiette is thick and shaped like tiny hats; this was like shells made in a summer camp arts and crafts class.
Big City Tavern Rapini, Sausage and Orecchiette
This is an unbelievably incompetent dish. They brag about their "House-Made" pasta, which is great when you know how to make it. This pasta was unsalted, limp and mal-formed. There were a few chunks of decent tasting sausage; a few strands of waterlogged rapini in a sauce that didn't have enough taste to make me want to eat the pasta or the tomatoes; most of which I left on the plate. This was worse than the junk Boulukos served over at YOLO.
If you've never had this before, this is how the dish is supposed to look.
I set out to find out how the Big City Tavern's variation on the classic Sausage/Rabe/Orecchiette recipe measured up to others that I've had in town. Considering that they're building a 10,000 sq ft restaurant in the old Solita space and they're naming the restaurant after Big City's chef, Louie Bossi, I figured maybe I was missing something. But what I got was not Italian food in any sense of the word. As has been the case since day 1, Big City counts on their customer base being cretins who have never dined anywhere other than Lester's before. You can't serve food like this to anyone who has experienced decent food before.
I continue to wonder if the Owners here have ever even sampled Bossi's cooking or if they just selectively read shill reviews on Yelp. There's so much going on at this place that an involved owner simply shouldn't allow to continue. Did he actually try this dish and like it? How does slop like this stay on the menu for 2 years? And how does any "chef" who supposedly grew up in an Italian household allow something like this to come out of his kitchen?
A couple of years ago, Big Time Restaurants was spiraling downward; the brand they created in the late 90s was dwindling and they had no new idea. Then along came Rocco Mangel, and Big Time's 50% partnership has made Rocco rich and also reaped nice rewards for Big Time. Money has flowed into the 3 original restaurants City Cellar, City Oyster and Big City Tavern to keep them relevant.
I've written before about the Big City Makeover; if you haven't been here in a few years you'll hardly recognize the decor.
Big City Tavern Dining Room
A big change is the "open" kitchen; they put in a window so you can see the kitchen when you go to the bathroom. Watching Louie Bossi cure meat can be a lot of fun.
Another change is the communal table, with a very funky, custom-made fixture.
Big City Tavern Communal Table
A bartender told me that the fixture cost over $20K. Of course they don't sell most of the beers on the fixture.
Biggest Rip-Off 8/17/14
As I mentioned on 8/3, I'm not crazy about paying $10 for bad wine. So one evening I'd just finished a glass of cheap wine and I noticed "ad" drawn on one of the mirrors:
Big City Tavern Sangria Promotion
$10 for Sangria. So I figure for the same price I can try the Sangria. I asked how cucumber worked in red wine, and the bartender told me it was a white wine; Really? They also had red sangria, he told me, so I ordered the Red Sangria.
This is what I got:
Big City Tavern Red Sangria
A regular size wine glass, filled with ice, with about 4oz of "sangria" and some apple pieces. It tasted like a wine cooler; a fizzy glass of bad wine. Usually, when you order a sangria at an Italian or Spanish Restaurant, it either comes in a bigger glass, or they give you the drink in a carafe and they give you a glass with ice and fruit.
Ok, so I got snookered; not unusual on Las Olas. When I got my bill, it seemed higher than it should be. I checked more closely, and they charged me $12 for the Sangria. Now I was mad, because this was a ripoff for $10. I asked a bartender "No, that's correct. We're running a special on the White Sangria".
Next time I was in Big City, I noticed the change:
Big City Tavern Sangria is $12
The idea that a wine cooler in a glass of ice is worth $12 is just a joke. Don't be fooled.
Bad Wine Policy 8/3/14
I used to drink at Big City quite often; they had a Badiola "Toscana" that wasn't great for $11/glass, but it was $12-$15 per bottle retail so it wasn't a colossal ripoff. Recently they got the idea to switch to the worst chianti ever created; the bottom of the line Ruffino; a commercialized winery that parlayed a great grape year in 1997 into a franchise of growingly bad wines. They charge $10/glass for this swill, which is the kind of stuff they used to have in straw baskets in pizzerias.
I reluctantly drink it once in a while; I prefer the better Chianti they have at the Royal Pig for $8. The last time I was at Total Wine I spotted a bottle on the shelf. It retails for $7.99 a bottle.
Ruffino Chianti at Total Wine
Nice mark up. Of course I don't drink there much anymore, so are they really making more?
DJ on Weekends
A few months ago, they started having a DJ on Friday and Saturdays after 11pm. It's pretty much universally considered that the DJ has no positive value and in fact has been known to clear the bar. Employees and customers generally agree on this; so why do they have it? Nobody knows.
Big City Tavern DJ
They have a very good sound system here, and typically there's a full bar at 11pm, and when the DJ starts playing, you'll either 1) not notice that there's a DJ or 2) wonder why the music all of a sudden sucks and you'll want to get out of the place as soon as possible. I've been in the place multiple times during the cutover and not once has the music improved once the DJ took charge of the tunes. So why are they paying a guy to sit in the corner with a laptop?
I've asked the bartenders and they've confirmed that the owner has never been in on a weekend to "experience" the DJ. More absentee owner restaurant tricks from The Big Time Restaurant Group.
I used to get pizzas regularly at Big City Tavern. While I'm not a fan of paying $16 plus tax and tip for a 12" pie, at happy hour the price is right. And it's a pretty good pizza.
Big City Tavern Sausage Pizza 2009
Big City Tavern Pizza (2012)
Big City Tavern Pizza (2013)
It's lighter on the sausage than it used to be, but still a great happy hour value at $7.50.
Big City Tavern is one of those places that could be such a great place but falls short. It's frustrating, because the problems are easily fixable; but instead of changing the things that need adjustment, they just spent a boatload of money on a makeover; leaving largely the same restaurant with new decor.
Big City Tavern
The new decor is odd but nice; I liked the lighting better before; it's a bit too dark now. Big City has the best bar on the street; a long bar that's partially separate from the restaurant; but there's a flow that works well. Service here will depend on who's working; the days where all of their servers were top notch have passed.
They used to play really good music on their web site before they redesigned it; but for some reason they play club music in the restaurant. Music helps to define the crowd; so the crowd here isn't too sophisticated. I'm usually seated next to tourists from the nearby Riverside Hotel, or some in-the-biz people who know the bartenders. Different nights have different crowd; On weekend the place turns into a disco after 11pm; they turn up the music and the place fills up with servers and busboys from nearby restaurants that are closing. So plan on getting out before 11.
While their web site just says that they sell "delicious food at reasonable prices", I have trouble getting my arms around the idea that a $13 hamburger is "reasonable". The truth is that the prices here are as high as any restaurant in Fort Lauderdale with a few exceptions; and the dishes are hit or miss. The corporate chef is an owner, which always means that expecting much more than mediocrity from the kitchen will ruin the experience for you. Egos will keep them from ever objectively evaluating their menu problems. A good example is their Orecchiette with Sausage and Rabe offering. They say it has tomatoes, mint and its in a "garlic white wine sauce". Anyone who knows anything about Italian food knows how very wrong this is. It's an example of a chef trying to prove they're better than others; and in effect they've created a dish that would simply make any real foodie just shake their head. Too many ingredients is a sure sign of a confused chef.
Big City's lunch menu is purposely too expensive; they don't have any wallet-friendly items (you can't get a plain wedge salad at lunch; you have to pay for it with chicken). Aside from soup or a plain green salad, the minimum lunch item will cost you $13. No appetizers. It's just gouge central. It screams out, "If you're not a businessperson or a tourist, go somewhere else". Lunch is "supposed" to cost less than dinner.
Big City Tavern is typical of what's wrong with Fort Lauderdale restaurants; a while back they let their GM and classically trained chef go and replaced them with inexperienced staffers; the idea that you need a professionally run restaurant or kitchen is just a waste of money in this town. For a period of time, the owners were busy building Rocco's Tacos and they let the chickens run the henhouse; they had wholly incompetent ex-hostesses and servers as "managers" and the place was just a disaster. It was truly spiraling out of control; the owners have since re-engaged and it's not more like a serious restaurant again.
One thing unique about Big City is the free radishes; I'm always amused by the number of people who don't even know what they are.
Complementary Radishes at Big City Tavern
Something that long-time residents will notice is that the place has become more and more corporate as time goes on. The owners email addresses used to be on their web site; now there's just a contact box that asks you for a lot of information that you probably don't want to give out. Prices go up 50 cents every few months, and ingredients shrink. I most recently had a wedge salad, "reasonably' priced at $9.50 and described as "Applewood smoked bacon, Red Onion, Vine Ripe Tomatoes and Blue Cheese Dressing...
Big City Tavern Wedge Salad
There was a time when this would be drenched in dressing with at least 2 strips of bacon; now I doubt that I got even 1 strip of bacon (there are some crumbles in the upper left). The bartender asked if I needed more dressing without my having to say a word; obviously he knows that they don't give you enough. And the tomatoes weren't that ripe. More nickel and diming on Las Olas. It's one thing to cut ingredients or portions a bit to maintain pricing, but like YOLO, they keep raising prices while diminishing the quality of the food. I guess as long as people keep coming without saying anything, the fleecing will continue.
Big City has long had the worst bread on the street; for some reason the "Italian" bread you got if you asked for bread was just awful. Recently, they've installed their own bakery in the kitchen, and now you'll get some nice "bread of the day" that's a lot better than before. I got a nice rosemary foccacia.
Big City Tavern Bread
Obviously they need to work on their olive oil dip, but the bread was very good.
I used to eat here a lot, and consistency was always an issue. I'd get the salmon and it would be fantastic; and then the next time it would be overdone and simply not the same. Expect some randomness when you come here and you won't be disappointed.
They've recently raised the price of the happy hour menu,but it's still a good deal. Pizzas used to be $6, but at $6.75 to $7.50 they're still the best value on the street at happy hour.
Big City is the kind of place where people who don't usually eat in good restaurants go for a big night out. If you enjoy Cheesecake Factory and Carrabba's, you'll like it here just fine. Just don't expect New York City dining here, despite the name of the restaurant.
Big City Tavern Original Storefront
Big City Tavern has a new logo, a big new sign out front, a new awning, new decor and new dishes. And with all of the changes, the best change is that Big City Tavern is more like it was before. The owners have spent a small fortune in an effort to remake the place; but to me the physical changes don't affect my decision to go there. What's changed is that the owners have re-engaged. While they still focus on a lot of things that really don't matter at all, like how they fold the napkin when you eat at the bar; the place is again under adult supervision. And the difference shows. I haven't seen an inept "manager" or inept bartending crew in months. Service is back to where it was.
18 months ago I chided the owners for leaving Big City for dead; it had lost it's appeal as the coolest place on the street. They did a lot more than was needed; but I have to give them credit for their efforts. When I saw the trolly; I knew that they were all in.
Big City Tavern Trolly Advertising
The decor now includes an Elk head, more subdued lighting, new mini-club chairs and a badly-need reupholstering of the big circular booths. Sadly, the big, cool boxing paintings are gone. The decor hasn't subdued the scene; it's still a loud place, particularly on weekends, and they still play loud music. I've also heard that they have a DJ on weekends, but I haven't seen it.
Another change is the addition of craft beers. Everyone seems to have craft beer now. I always drink the same thing, so no matter to me. Some not-so-good changes are higher prices (about $1 across the board on the menu since last year), smaller portions of tuna and less sausage on the pizzas (see photos in the gallery). They're still both good deals at happy hour, when the tuna is half price and pizzas are $6. They also no longer have Guinness in any form. You now can't get a Guinness on Las Olas. How ridiculous is that?
The draw of Big City is that it's just a cool place to hang out. I always find people here that are friendly and interesting to talk to, unlike most nearby alternatives. They have comfortable bar stools with backs on them and bartenders with personality.
As far as the restaurant goes, Big City is pretty typical of South Florida restaurants who try too hard to convince themselves that they're a big time, fancy restaurant. My personal opinion is that they'd do better focusing on solid pub-type food and give it up with the cheese plates and charcuteries. More people eat pizza and apps than anything else; at some point you have to come to terms with what you are: a cool place to hang out and grab some grub. There's nothing wrong with that.
I hadn't eaten at Big City Tavern for a long time. I'm not a huge fan of the menu, but recently they added mussels, which is a nice, low-carb snack that fits my diet. So when I unexpectedly landed a chair on a Friday night, I ordered some up.
Big City Tavern Mussels
This is the best menu item they've added in years. The mussels are plump and loaded with shaved garlic and there's a nice light butter sauce that's good for dipping the mussels as well as the bread. They're not half price at happy hour; but they're well worth the $12 price.
Another new menu item is the Braised Boneless Beef Short Rib, which I've been meaning to try. I tasted one that a friend ordered, but I was pretty pasted at the time and I wanted the full ride.
Big City Tavern Braised Boneless Beef Short Rib
Like most things here, it comes with all sorts of "presentation" that I could do without; its served with mashed potatoes and "winter vegetables", which are grilled cauliflower, carrots and brussels sprouts. There's a shallow pool of natural gravy in the plate. My impression of the dish is that it could pass for a pretty good pot roast; something I haven't had since I lived with my parents. It's not quite tender or flavorful enough to be considered a really good short rib; the meat is fairly tender but it's too chewy; it's very good when swabbed in the gravy; a really good short rib shouldn't need to be dipped in gravy. If they braised it a little longer it could be much better.
Also, the bread was lousy. Rock hard frozen butter and bread that I didn't want to eat after taking 2 bites.
One night I had a few pieces of a pretty good daily special flatbread (see gallery); which are really just pizza variations with a bunch of stuff on them. Sometimes they're good and sometimes they just sound contrived; you'll have to judge the ingredients for yourself.
The recent sampling here convince me that not much has changed from a culinary standpoint at Big City; the dude next to me sent back some cold meatballs which came back as cool meatballs. It's a nice, comfortable place with decent grub; if you come in understanding that you'll have a good time.
After reading the ridiculous shill that the Sun-Sentinel printed I decided it was time to refresh my review. It’s unfortunate what’s happened to newspapers in general, but the food sections have really become a joke. While I was researching this I came across this review from 1998, from a time when newspapers had real restaurant critics. What’s interesting (and sad) is that the review from 1998 describes this restaurant much more closely than the puff piece penned by their current food blogger. I don’t know one person who views the restaurant the way it was described in the Sun-Sentinal, including people who work there. And when a reviewer gives the restaurant owner exactly the review they want, it can’t be real, particularly when it’s not the truth by any measure.
Beyond the shills, Big City Tavern has been in a downward spiral since YOLO opened. This was once THE place to be Las Olas, and that’s a big part of the problem. The success instilled a certain arrogance in the entire organization. Back when they were still hot, I heard bartenders tell customers that they were “free to get their drinks elsewhere” when they complained about something. Ownership mistakenly convinced themselves that they had the complete package, but it was never like that. They never came to the obvious conclusion that the model was flawed, even after other locations closed in West Palm Beach, Tampa and Boca.
What Big City had was the coolest place in the best location on Las Olas, and very good service at the bar. On weekends they had at least 3 good bartenders every night. The food served as nourishment for the people who came for the scene. This was never a place you came for great food.
When YOLO opened everything changed. The herd had a new focus; something new, something more interesting. Big Time failed to react. Good businessman know that you need to react when new competition arises, but Big Time refused to adjust their measly $1 off happy hour or menu offerings and business dropped.
The Sun-Sentinel article says that the kitchen “doesn’t seem corporate”. This is completely wrong. It’s either contrived, or incompetent. Anyone even remotely tuned into the culinary scene in this town knows the deal with the Big Time Restaurant Group. They are completely strapped with their corporate structure, and unless they address it they’ll have difficulty being competitive. They have a lowly regarded corporate chef who has been producing the same “ubiquitous” menus since day 1. The fact that she’s a partner is problematic; the other partners seem totally committed to her. Here’s a menu from 2002. It was quite a bit better than it is today; the menu now is largely the same with the cheaper ingredients. These are corporate menus; recipes that are easy to crank out by inexpensive kitchen staff. What Big Time refuses to understand is that people look at menus from all over town when they make their decisions now. Sure, if you find yourself here you can find something to eat, but the menu isn’t going to get you here over someplace else. Every menu in the area is more interesting: Yolo, Timpano, Rare, even the Cheesecake Factory.
Instead of reacting to remain competitive, Big Time cut costs. They fired their weak, too expensive GM and replaced him with a weaker, less expensive one; they’ve fired their executive chef (who was never given any control of the menu) and promoted a cook from within; good bartenders have left. Promotions seem to be based on friendship rather than ability.
The result has been a drop in service so severe that I know several people who say that they just can’t come here anymore, because service is just a total crapshoot. I stopped in on a recent Saturday; the lights were down, techno music was cranking, and the place was filled with 20-somethings, mostly eating pizza. I never even made it to the bar.
Big Time completely failed to assess the problems correctly, refusing to listen to objective criticism, and they’ve just spent a boatload of money on a makeover. They hired designer/wizard Karen Hanlon and they’ve transformed the sleek, Big City decor into something more “lodgey”. Nobody is quite sure who they were trying to attract.
The reactions to the new decor are mixed; I prefer the brighter lighting and cool boxing paintings to the Elk head, but realistically it makes little difference. Like an overweight chainsmoker who gets the idea that a new outfit will change their life, at the end of the day, the place is still the same. The same menu, same food, same servers and the same management that reacts to criticism like a bunch of delusional crybabies.
I can summarize the food here quite simply: I’ve had the salmon perhaps 5 times; twice it was really good. Such is the Big City Tavern. Someone next to me ordered the tuna appetizer the other day. See the picture we have here? The portion is much smaller now. I was shocked at the portion. Not a good way to re-establish your customer base, particularly when the tuna is so much better at both Timpano and YOLO.
I wonder how much time Big Time management has spent dining at YOLO and Timpano and assessing their competition? I’m guessing none. I’ve been to Big City 100s of times and I’ve never even seen one of the partners there. You can’t be successful if you blindly reject the idea that your product isn’t competitive with the other choices. Upgrading the decor isn’t a solution, because the decor was never part of the problem.
Centralized arrogance may prevent Big City from ever being any good again. They run their business like a bunch of friends rather than businesspeople focused on profit. Their product is in disarray; they have decor suitable for 40-somethings, loud music suitable for 20-somethings, and a menu suitable for people who think that the Cheesecake Factory is a big night out. They haven’t seemed to learned much from all of the restaurants they’ve closed. A restaurant in 2011 is not just defined by its decor; it’s the complete package; menu, food consistency, service and most importantly, how those compare to other restaurants nearby.
It’s really unfortunate, because this place should be the best place on the street. But if Big Time doesn’t come to terms with the fact that a model that worked in 2002 isn’t going to work in 2011, then this place is doomed to be a comfortable spot to grab some pizza and watch a game. The good news is that there’s no problem getting a seat at the bar now.
Big City Brunch Review 7/24/10
Big City Tavern is one of the most popular bars in Fort Lauderdale best known for its bar scene on weekends. What most people don't know is that they have a brunch menu that's served on Saturday and Sundays from 11:30 to 2:30pm.
Unless you've been in the restaurant and have seen the flyers on the tables; you'd never know they had a brunch menu. The menu in the display outside only shows lunch. The place is empty at 11:50am. At least there's no problem getting a table.
They started serving Sunday Brunch on Mother's day to similar fanfare. Those familiar with Big City often refer to their menu as mundane; its been fairly similar for many years, despite attempts to change it.
First things first, this is a special brunch menu; this is not breakfast. You don't come here for 2 over easy with sausage.
The menu item that caught my eye was the Crab Cake Eggs Benedict. The regular Big City Crab Cakes are quite large, but for this dish the cakes are sized to fit on on english muffin. Its your basic eggs benedict with the canadian bacon replaced with a crab cake.
And it tastes as good as it looks. The hollandaise is light and lemony with specs of chives. The home fries are diced potatoes with onions and peppers. Its a lot more filling than it looks. The coffee is particularly good here; if you like Starbucksesque strong coffee.
I wish more places would serve brunch on Saturday; to take a bit of the rush out of Sunday Brunch, and to acknowledge that people like to sleep in on Saturdays which is the point of a late breakfast in the first place. This one is a good one, with some very unique menu items to choose form.
They now have an unlimited mimosa deal for $12. Cheap champaign and cheap OJ, but it beats paying $8 a pop for the same thing.