BUENA - "Welcome to Buena Tavern!" Those friendly words came not from our hostess but from the printed paper placemat on our table, a placemat that would later become the bane of our existence.
Not that the staff wasn't welcoming, too.
The word on the street about Buena Tavern was all about portion size - big portion size - and that's not a bad thing. The food is not inexpensive, but you get plenty of good, basic food for a reasonable price. That's something to consider if the portion-size preference of your family is larger than average.
Buena Tavern follows a long line of Italian restaurants located in basements. We couldn't help but make comparisons to places like Chef Vola's in Atlantic City, located downstairs from the main house - Buena Tavern is downstairs from a large banquet room.
Entering through the bar area, we sat in the dining room while just behind us, in a small, private room, a baby shower was finishing up. The retreating guests carried balloons and stacks of gifts through the dining room on their way to the parking lot, giving new meaning to the term family-style.
When our server brought what looked like a home-baked loaf of sesame bread with a cutting board and knife to our table, we dug in. It was perfect for a bowl of mussels ($11.95) in our choice of scampi sauce, made with white wine, herbs and olive oil.
We used the bread on the tasty scampi sauce, but found the mussels slightly tough and slightly overcooked. Mushrooms stuffed with crab meat ($12.95) was a pretty plate with two rows of perfectly cooked, large mushroom caps with pieces of crab barely held together by the seasoned, creamy sauce. A side cup of melted butter couldn't possibly have made them taste better, and yet, the melted butter certainly didn't hurt.
We knew it was no time to concern ourselves with calories or cholesterol counts. Entrees began with a large bistro bowl loaded with homemade gnocchi ($12.95) in red gravy with some very tender meatballs that we absolutely devoured. The meatballs, that is. The portion of gnocchi was large enough to satisfy two or three adults, and so the leftovers got packaged and carried out like one more shower gift. The sauce was good, too. We couldn't resist the fried-seafood platter ($24.95) which featured all of our favorites - scallops, shrimp, crabcakes, deviled clam and flounder, all breaded and deep-fried, and all tasting fresh and good.
We remained true to our roots by choosing the types of dishes we remembered from our family meals on day trips to the New Jersey shore. And sure enough, it's that good, basic fare that Buena Tavern does so well. You won't go wrong with pasta or fried seafood.
Our server suggested a slice of hot, homemade apple pie and some vanilla ice cream ($5.95). It just seemed like the right thing to do. We guessed the microwave was the heat source, as the pie was cold in some spots and very hot in others. Our server was friendly, if not particularly chatty, during our review visit. Maybe the baby shower had worn her out.
Something about the word tavern we like, intimating the setting is just a little more upscale than a plain old bar/restaurant. The basement room was painted white all around, making it a bright and comfortable space, even without any windows.
The placemat, the kind that advertises a dozen or so local businesses, included a game with ten icons hidden somewhere in the advertisements. Things like a cat, a dog and a plate with knife and fork were all hidden somewhere on the page. By the end of our meal, that paper-placemat game still had us befuddled. We had to fold ours up and bring it home because we couldn't find the remaining two items, a man and a squirrel. We still haven't found them to this day.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
1256 E. Harding
Hours: 10 a.m. to 3 a.m., closed Tuesdays
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Some stairs
Price range: Appetizers, $5.95 to $15.95; entrees, $7.95 to $39.95
Our bill for two: $78 plus tip