If you can't tell a book by its cover, you can't tell a restaurant by its name. Sleeping Dog Tavern conjures up images of a sports bar with lots of beer and standard pub fare, which pretty much describes its former incarnation. At first glance, when you descend below street level into a subterranean lounge with two televisions (down from the previous seven), it's what you still expect. Bogey wouldn't be out of place at the large bar in a dimly lit room with plum colored ceilings, an unobtrusive carpet, dark tables and black chairs. The "outdoor" tables in the airy San Francisco Street Mercado, surrounded by stores and walls, have little atmosphere, but in the main dining area the room is warmly infused with twilight.
Sit at a table and the old-time tavern illusion begins to give way. The tables, after all, are wood, stained a rich, deep red, and the black wood chairs have a modern flair. The napkins are linen, the music low, the TVs relegated to the background. Candles light the tables at night.
The uptown menu puts an end to any lingering thoughts of this as an average pub. Reasonably priced "bar snacks" include a delicious chipotle buffalo sausage plate, the sausage slices baked in a crispy parmesan crust--modern Southwest fusion at its best. Jumbo skewered shrimp are topped with an excellent chile and pineapple glaze sauce, set in a teepee over a hip, tasty version of slaw and tasty South African Peppadew peppers are stuffed with goat cheese and topped with tobiko caviar (roe from flying fish, often used in shusi). Then there's the impossible-to-resist, decadently delightful, best-ever fries coated with melted stilton and more than a hint of heady truffles.
Soups include an outstanding, delicately flavored shrimp and lobster bisque made with a touch of Pedro Ximénez (a dark, heavy dessert sherry that lends a hint of sweetness and complexity). There are several salads. Entrees change with the seasons, as in most quality eateries. A tavern has to have burgers and steak, but here the former is American Kobe beef and the latter, organic. Seared diver scallops with coconut rice, black beans, and a mango butter sauce evoke the tropics, while the duck dish suggests France.
Executive chef Russell Thornton wasn't surprised that the sports bar phase didn't last. Speaking for Santa Fe Dining as well as for himself, he says, "We're not into running bars. We're restaurant guys." When he began considering new themes for Sleeping Dog, he had to stay within the broad genre of a pub; there's no escaping the bar and chthonic atmosphere. But it needed to be a pub with more elegance, at once "very American with a Southwest flair."
The concept of the chic gastropub, a makeover of the traditional bar, originated with The Eagle in London in 1991. The idea: keep the informality of the public alehouse of yore, but offer quality food, la gastronomie, at an affordable price. The idea caught on big time in England, where London alone now has around three dozen of them. Thornton and Sleeping Dog GM Dave Readyhough didn't have to hop across the pond for inspiration. Instead they flew to Manhattan, along with SF Dining's President Jeff Jinnett and VP of Operations John Gozigian. They visited The Spotted Pig, awarded a Michelin star and credited as the first of the new genre Stateside, along with more than twenty other restaurants.
They created a place that's "upscale but friendly and casual with a bar," Thornton says. GM Readyhough likes "the warm feel of the traditional pub, and the atmosphere. The food for Santa Fe is priced exceptionally well, and we trained our staff to be not too formal but not too casual."
Convinced that the new trend would work in Santa Fe, the team eschewed mimicking what they found in New York. While many American gastropubs on both coasts pay homage to the British originals, Thornton wanted a place at home in Santa Fe. Sure, there's fish and chips, if you count the in-house mesquite-smoked salmon, battered and fried, as remotely English. Chile peppers appear frequently in Sleeping Dog recipes: a touch, never particularly spicy. Even the contemporary, chicken-based "white chile," which uses white beans instead of the old standby, is fairly tame.
The Sleeping Dog doesn't reach the heights of fine dining associated with The Coyote Café, The Anasazi, or Tulips, for examples. Instead, it's in a price and quality league with Andiamo, say, but with a completely different kind of food. The most expensive dinner entrees come in at $22. Thornton proudly points to some of the features that contribute to excellence: fresh oysters, potatoes pressure-fried in zero-transfat oil, Plugra French style butter (creamier, higher butterfat, lower moisture), Camembert from a small Colorado artisanal maker, free-range chicken, and New Mexico lamb. Presentations merit the fine ingredients.
A good selection of on-tap and bottled beers and a liquor selection that includes good single malt scotches keep up the pub tradition. But after the tavern switched gears from sports bar to gastropub, wine began outselling other alcohols. Readyhough put together a well-priced, eclectic list from around the world. Although you'll find common varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, he isn't afraid to offer lesser-known wines. The Italian Bocca di Lupo, for example, made largely from the aglianico grape, receives good to outstanding reviews from wine critics year after year. The same holds for the Spanish Juan Gil, made from monastrell (mourvèdre in France). Come to the Sleeping Dog on a Saturday, when all bottles of wine are slashed to half price, and experiment with something new.
A group compliments the staff on their way out: lunch was superb, they say. Thornton says that kind of response is common. For him, Sleeping Dog Tavern has become home, in spite of his responsibilities in other Santa Fe Dining restaurants. "For eleven years what I've done is conceive of a restaurant, nurture it, and watch it grow" with its own permanent chef. Not here, where he still runs shifts. "It's been hard to let go of it. When I think what kind of restaurant do I want to go to myself, this is it."
Sleeping Dog Tavern is located at 114 West San Francisco in Santa Fe. 505.982.4335.