It’s out of empathy that co-owner and chef Frank Pignataro piles the plates here. One of six boys, he grew up having to score as much meat as he could gets his hands on at the crowded family dinner table.
So when he opened River Mill Tavern and Tables nearly a year ago, he wanted to accommodate diners looking for value and volume.
Through a menu of snacks and appetizers, sandwiches, burgers and entrees, he shows his experience running kitchens around Long Island, from Point Ale House in Point Lookout. Chesapeake Bay in Long Beach and E.B. Elliotts in Freeport, as well as a stretch cooking in Key West, Florida. (For evidence of the latter, order the crabcake, the fish tacos or whatever happens to be the seafood special.)
The focus on food is a departure from what had been Swiss Tavern since the 1940s. The college friend I met here for brunch one recent Saturday afternoon initially thought I was booking an afternoon bender, having remembered it as a place to tie on a few. She left filled with good cheer and an appetite well satisfied.
Today, after partners updated the space, the 70-seat dining room is bright and modern: the kind of place you can book for your mother’s birthday or dinner with a friend. A hutch and wine storage draws attention to the center of the room, while banquettes soften angles and offer a place for Pignataro’s two young children to sprawl out when they visit. French doors in the back of the restaurant lead to the new patio adjacent to the parking lot.
The partners didn’t do much to the bar beyond a sprucing as well as adding memorabilia such as Pignataro’s photo of his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who spent most of his career as a bartender at the legendary Sardi’s in Times Square.
River Mill Tavern is a beer and house-wine kind of place, though the shandy I ordered during brunch was just fine, one of three bottomless drinks, along with sparkling wine and mimosas.
I liked the first bite, a gratis skillet of warm cornbread, cakey with a hint of honey, sprinkled with black sesame seeds and served with salted butter.
A first course order of Caesar salad overtakes a bowl, a pleasing medley of textures, with romaine, crisped kale and fried wontons instead of croutons.
The “Trust Me” burger does the trick, a thick and dense patty, blanketed with cheese and a dollop of caramelized onion. Served on toasted brioche, it’s accompanied by pickle and fries on the side.
Unexpectedly, the server brought a trough of breakfast sides: enough bacon, sausage and home fries to feed a family. Those sides were part of my friend’s egg in a bowl order with short ribs and cheese. It’s a funny dish in that food in bowls is on trend, yet this bowl, made of bread, is charmingly retro.
“We didn’t want you to feel left out,” the server said to me.
I’m also attracted to dishes that pay homage to the area’s past. This includes the Swedish meatballs — a version of which, Pignataro says, had been on the Swiss Tavern menu — dressed with a beer and currant glaze and a couple of toothpicks. A chicken schnitzel sandwich is a hearty order, updated with apple, bacon, maple honey and Fontina, perhaps one ingredient too many.
Apart from those dishes, Kung pao calamari with spicy sweet garlic sauce, scallions and peanut garnish, is the kind of dish your hungry teenage nephew might go crazy over and you may secretly enjoy. Chances are, you’d both like the grilled cheese skewers served with a bowl of tomato soup.
And no matter what you order, chances are there will be enough leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.