There’s a palpable sense of excitement at the Sinclair on any given Friday night. You might have an hour wait for a table of four, which is not that unusual. Walk past the downstairs restrooms, and you’re in front of a box office and not far from where a band will be playing on a stage.
The Sinclair is two venues: a music club and a restaurant. The club is already off to a strong start, booked by Bowery Boston and bringing in a variety of acts ranging from indie rock to R&B to folk. After at least a month of delays before it finally opened in mid-December, the Sinclair has already become an essential place to hear music.
The restaurant, however, hasn’t quite hit its stride. It officially opened at the start of January, and its growing pains are still apparent. Beyond the missteps, which mostly center on the menu, you can see it is clearly on its way to becoming a vibrant addition to Harvard Square’s dining scene.
As its consulting chef, Michael Schlow has lent the Sinclair a good deal of prestige. Schlow, the force behind fine-dining institutions such as Radius and Via Matta, developed the menu with executive chef Marcellus Coleman and advised on matters of restaurant operations and kitchen design. Coleman is responsible for the day-to-day cooking.
There’s a natural extension from the restaurant to the club. On one visit a server can be overheard explaining the layout of the space, which seats 175 in the restaurant and accommodates 525 in the performance hall. “If you’d like to see the show, you can buy tickets at the box office,” she says, aptly describing the club as a “smaller version of the House of Blues.” That’s the only way to get into the club, as you’ll find out if you ask the gruff doorman if you can peek inside.
Then again, it’s hard to tell how much overlap the club and restaurant see in their clientele. The music venue typically attracts a younger crowd that might not shell out $25 for an entree or $10 for a cocktail.
The Sinclair is handsome and cozy, the industrial vision of Boston-based designer Stephen Martyak. The downstairs dining room looks like the sort of gentlemen’s lounge you’d see profiled in GQ magazine: rustic farm tables, wrought iron, soft lighting, low ceilings, and a subway-tile motif that’s even more pronounced in the club. The upstairs dining room is more formal, with higher ceilings and an open view of the kitchen.
Recognizing the revival of cocktail culture in recent years, the Sinclair has an inspired drinks program. The entire back page of the menu is devoted to long lists of bourbons, mezcals, gins, and so on. For the traditionalist, there’s a very good Sazerac, and the more adventurous can try the Ambre Empire (cognac, apple whiskey, Amaro Averna, lemon, and black walnut bitters). Inside tip if you’re seeing a show next door: Get a cocktail at the restaurant, have the bartender put it in a plastic cup, and you can take it into the club.
You want to spend time here, perched on a barstool or sipping cocktails with friends at one of the communal tables. You don’t, however, want to waste your time on the entrees. At least not yet. The Sinclair is one of those restaurants whose small plates far outshine the main attractions. The good news is that you can make a meal of the appetizers, which we opt to do after learning a lesson on the first visit.
It’s not easy to make a kale salad remarkable, but it is here. Finely shredded, to the point that it reminds a tablemate of seaweed, it’s flecked with fried parsnips, sunflower seeds, golden raisins, a light vinaigrette redolent of sesame oil, and garnished with tempura kale chips. Steamed mussels come in a savory sauce of red curry and little lychees, a terrific pairing of spice and sweetness.
“Disco fries” are as offbeat as the menu’s quote marks imply: waffle fries covered with chorizo, poblano chilies, and cheese sauce. Brussels sprouts are crisp and nicely salted with poached egg and bacon hollandaise. The chicken wings, slathered in a thick sauce of soy and hot sesame oil, are gone within minutes. And mac and cheese, a staple of any self-respecting spot serving comfort food, is less heavy-handed than most recipes.
I would gladly go back for any of those dishes. What a letdown, then, when the entrees arrive and one by one at the table we all grouse about the plates before us. How’s the burger? “It’s great. I love steak tartare,” someone quips before explaining that he had asked for it medium. (I, for one, enjoyed its basil aioli.) The steak frites suffer even more. The bavette (flap meat) is closer to rare than medium-rare as ordered, and it’s chewier than expected. The veggie burger is at least more flavorful, grilled portobello packed with a piquant black bean mixture.
The chicken is the victim of possibly the oddest presentation of poultry any of us have ever seen. It comes in long rectangular slices, stacked on a bed of Swiss chard and squash puree. It doesn’t resemble or even taste particularly like chicken, its white meat stripped of any skin and unappealingly soft. There’s no distinction in texture among any of the three ingredients.
As with any place, you find your way around a menu and realize what to avoid. If you need a conventional meal — appetizer, entree, dessert — the Sinclair is not for you. If you can ease into the night with a salad, some chicken wings, and a well-made cocktail, it’ll feel like a second home. Instead of that $25 steak frites, head next door to see the band.