Nickel Taphouse

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With the wildly popular Birroteca barely a year old, Robbin Haas opened the buzzy Nickel Taphouse in Mount Washington last November. Two restaurants booming in formerly troubled spots may anoint Haas with a reputation for a Midas touch. “The truth is,” says Haas, who has owned and operated restaurants from Florida golf resorts to Guatemala to the Eastern Shore, “I build restaurants that I want to go to.” Nickel, inspired by gin mills in Haas’ hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., features Beef on Weck—thin-sliced steak on a plump caraway-studded Kummelweck roll. But there are no chicken wings to be had. “I don’t want to be that place,” says Haas. “No wings, no nachos. We’re not a bar food restaurant.”

Décor. Haas commissioned local artist Robert Merrill to design Parisian-inspired decals for the windows, with such inviting messages as “Ladies Welcome,” “Open Sundays” and “Fresh Mussels.” The 140-year-old front door with a beveled glass window, and wood for the bar came from salvage outlets, and Haas purchased the beadboard booths that line one wall from a defunct Hooters—painting over the orange with a cool slate and adding brown Naugahyde cushions. An iron rack suspended above the bar holds 120 flickering votive candles, and the deer antler chandelier coordinates nicely with the bison horn door handles—and toilet paper holder in the bathroom.

Drinks. Nickel has 32 (mostly mid-Atlantic) craft beers on tap, with the brews constantly changing. “We buy one keg at a time, and when one pops we put another one in,” says Haas. There’s also a 50-bottle wine list with only a handful over $40, and 18 wines by the glass. Bar manager Danny Onaga designs cocktails with small batch spirits and housemade fixings. “You won’t find maraschino cherries behind the bar,” says Haas. Nor will you find Seagram’s or Absolut, for that matter, though there is Buffalo Trace Bourbon infused with bacon fat, used in one of Nickel’s special Boozy Shakes along with candied bacon, vanilla ice cream from Prigel Family Creamery and ground walnuts.

Food. Along with its signature Beef on Weck, Nickel offers healthy salads, plates (for two) of whole bronzini, chicken and dumplings and brisket with mashed potatoes. There’s also a sinfully juicy Roseda burger—“everyone who uses that beef has an amazing burger,” Haas demurs—along with a nightly selection of oysters (on a recent Saturday night, the place shucked more than 600) and, yes, mussels.

Service. Haas’ restaurant philosophy is more about the Golden Rule than a Midas touch. “To me, service is key in a restaurant,” he says. “In our job description I list the tools you need each day: an apron, five pens, a wine opener and a smile. It’s called the hospitality business because you’re supposed to be hospitable. You’re supposed to make people happy.”

Location, Location, Location. The 2,000-square-foot space has seen at least four tenants in nearly the same number of years. But if Haas can keep up the vibe—as he seems to be doing with Birroteca—there’s no reason to think Nickel won’t be a keeper.  As for the other tavern around the corner? “The more the merrier,” he says.

Final Verdict. For some, Nickel might be a bit out of the way, but it’s worth remembering when you’re in the mood for filling victuals and affordable drinks. Not to mention smiling staff and Boozy Shakes.

—Martha Thomas

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