Five Horses Tavern

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By any measure, Somerville’s Davis Square is a hip place with a thriving social scene. There are bars aplenty – newer, upscale places such as Foundry and Saloon, mainstays like the Burren and the Joshua Tree, and classic dives like Sligo. That’s to say nothing of the diverse cuisine options, the bowling alley, the Somerville Theater, and multiple places to hear live music.

So Davis Square didn’t exactly need Five Horses Tavern. But its opening last year just makes the area that much cooler.

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Boasting an extensive beer selection and a food menu that is at once basic and inventive, Five Horses finds a way to distinguish itself in a busy area with a lot of competition. The interior is beautiful and feels very new. It’s on two floors – the smaller lower level has its own bar, a few tables, and a view of the street through big windows that presumably open during nicer weather. The upper level has a much longer bar with a copper top and a dozen or so cushy black chairs, maybe five tables, and a comfortable rounded booth.

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With a stone floor, stonework on the walls, a huge fireplace in the dining area, and a muted blue and red color scheme, Five Horses feels like a big, fancy den in a country house, very comfortably lit by chandeliers.

The biggest and coolest “chandelier,” though, gives off no light at all – it’s composed entirely of tap handles and hangs above the entrance, an unusual beacon highlighting Five Horses’ devotion to beer.

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The wait staff, all clad in plaid shirts, are genuinely friendly. They appear to enjoy not only working there, but working together. There was a lot of banter behind the bar that didn’t feel contrived. They seem like a bunch of friends who only get to see each other once every couple of months, and when they do, they run a bar together.

I was here a few weeks ago for my friend Mario’s birthday, along with the usual barhopping crew – Melissa, Mario’s wife Ivys, my sister Kelly, and our friend Scott. We got here at 7:45 on a Saturday night, and to no one’s surprise, the place was jam-packed. But we only had an hour-long wait for a table, which really isn’t bad on a weekend evening.

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And I certainly didn’t mind the wait, as it gave me a chance to check out the excellent beer list. If the tap-handle chandelier wasn’t enough of an indication, Five Horses is clearly proud of its beer selection – there’s a chalkboard outside announcing “150 Beers,” and you can buy a t-shirt stating the same if you wish to spread the good news on Five Horses’ behalf. A liquor store-grade refrigerator glows in the center of the dining room, stocked with all sorts of bottled offerings.

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That’s in addition to the 36 beers available on draft, a nice balance of unusual craft brews like Chatoe Rogue First Growth Single Malt Ale, solid standards like Smuttynose, Murphy’s, and Belhaven, and things like High Life. And best of all…one beer on cask.

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I find it hard to resist a cask offering, and I was pleased to hear it was Dale’s Pale Ale. The bartender gushed over it (figuratively), and I wholly agreed with his appraisal. You can tell the bartenders are not only proud of their selection, they actually really like the beer.

Plus, they’re very attentive. As crowded as the bar area was, one of the bartenders, who reminded me of Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars: Episode III, somehow saw me through a wall three people deep, handed me a drink menu, and managed to hear my order. Maybe he’s just very perceptive, maybe the Force is strong with him; either way, score another one for the bartenders.

Eventually we were shown to our table, and that’s when things got even better. Five Horses describes its menu as “modern American comfort food,” and I can’t think of a better way to characterize it. Comfort classics like mac and cheese are spruced up with pork belly and lobster. And forget about topping your pizza with something so blasé as pepperoni – how about confit duck, slow-roasted cauliflower, pumpkin, or grilled corn? (Don’t worry, you can get a classic cheese pizza if you’re not feeling so daring.)

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We started our meal with a couple of appetizers: the delicious papas fritas – triple fried potatoes (how you triple fry something, I don’t know) served with an irresistible red pepper garlic mayo, and drunken wings – appropriately named, as they were marinated in tequila and beer.

The culinary experiments continued with our entrees. Mario’s opted for “k.f.g.c.h.” Now there’s an acronym that rolls right off the tongue. It stands for Kentucky fried cornish game hen, and if there’s a better example of modern comfort food, I don’t know what it is. You can find some kind of fried chicken dish on pretty much any menu, and cornish game hens will show up in fancier establishments. But to take the highbrow game hen and fry it up? That’s a first for me.

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The same with Five Horses’ tacos, which is what I got. There are four varieties: pork belly, tuna, “toro furioso,” and potato. A far cry from the typical beef, chicken, or beans. I went with the first three. The pork belly and the tuna were excellent, but the real story was the toro furioso – chili-marinated short rib, banana peppers, pickled Thai peppers, and red dragon sauce. Ay, dios mio! I like a little heat, but this was like being gored by a flaming bull. If I had to do it again (and I would), I’d eat the tuna taco last, which might have cooled my scorched palate.

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Kelly and Scott both got the hangar steak, with goat cheese-scallion mashed potato, and Mel got the “fried chicken sammy,” drizzled with raw Vermont honey. But the talk of the table was Ivys’ entrée, an exquisite dish called duck three ways – pan-seared duck breast, confit duck leg, smoked sweet potato and duck stuffing. It’s a wonder Ivys was even able to eat any, since everyone else kept on sampling it.

I looked at their plates with a certain envy. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my tacos. But I thought, none of them are wondering whether it’s possible for one’s esophagus to melt, as I am.

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Following dinner and a complimentary crème brulee for the birthday boy, we moved on to one of the more intriguing options on the menu – moonshine.

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For me, the mention of moonshine conjures up a vision of a couple of overall-wearing hicks in a one-horse town in the deep South, unaware that Prohibition has definitively come to a close, brewing up a vile, powerful, eyesight-revoking concoction in a crudely constructed still (which they then illegally sell to their overall-wearing neighbors).

But apparently moonshine’s come a long way. Now it’s made by a distillery called Stillhouse, and while it’s perfectly legal and of far better quality than what someone might make behind their garage, it stays true to its roots as a clear corn whiskey. Five Horses is the first bar I’ve seen serving this, but I have a feeling it will become much more commonplace.

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The moonshine came in several varieties; I went for what appeared to be the flagship, Midnight Moon. It was cool and crisp, more reminiscent of vodka than whiskey. Scott’s choice, Midnight Moon Apple Pie, was the real hit. We all marveled at the natural apple taste.

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Mario opted for Midnight Moon Cherry, which got a boisterous thumbs-down from the entire table (though Scott might have mentioned, more than twice, that having it “neat” would have been better).

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I returned to Five Horses with Melissa on a Tuesday after work, and was pleased to find Master Kenobi again working the bar. This time the place was nearly empty; maybe three or four other patrons. I started with the Haverhill Commuter Ale, both because I can’t resist a pun and because I used to take the Haverhill commuter rail to work. It was a light, crisp, easy-drinking beer.

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It then dawned on me that I hadn’t sampled Five Horses’ cocktails, so I remedied that with the Pleasure Club. It sounded appealing, with Bombay gin, Campari, lemon, ginger beer, and clove; and really, why wouldn’t I order a drink called the Pleasure Club? It was pleasurable enough, but it didn’t blow me away. The ginger beer was a little too prominent, but the cloves provided a unique and flavorful touch.

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Just as the Five Horses staff like their beer, I could tell they relished the opportunity to make a good cocktail. They have a short list of original drinks, and I noticed a couple of the bartenders whipping up what would be their specialty cocktail for the night and discussing what ingredients to use.

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And as ingredients go, they’ve got plenty to choose from. In addition to the aforementioned moonshine, Five Horses’ menu has a full page devoted to scotch, whiskey, and rye, along with a staggering array of bourbon options.

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For dinner, Mel and I sat at the bar and stuck with a couple of appetizers.

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The quieter atmosphere gave me a chance to appreciate the bar a little more than on my previous visit. Five Horses isn’t right smack dab in the middle of Davis, so it being quiet on a weeknight wasn’t too surprising. But that’s not a bad thing – no offense to Davis Square’s many nightlife attractions, but finding a place in which you don’t need to shout to be heard is a blessing. And aside from the crowded bar area on Saturday night, which is of course to be expected, Five Horses mostly seems spacious, laid back, and comfortable. Good for dinner, good for drinks, and worth a trip just to admire that tap-handle chandelier.

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Last Call

You have a lot of options in Davis Square – and a lot of reasons to try Five Horses. The beer selection more than holds its own against anything in the area or in Boston. If you’re a discerning bourbon drinker, I don’t think I’ve seen a broader list anywhere. You can even get moonshine here. But for me, the food is what puts Five Hosses over the top. There are intriguing options for those who want to be a little adventurous, and plenty for diners who want to play it safe. The entrées aren’t too badly priced, ranging from about $10 to $18. If you’re looking to be more economical, the two appetizers we had on our second visit totaled $15, and we were full.

Address: 400 Highland Avenue, Somerville

Website: http://fivehorsestavern.com/