Tucked away behind the Centreville Cinema complex, is a gem in the crown of the wildly popular line of area restaurants run by Great American Restaurants (GAR). Decked out in upscale Southwest décor, Sweetwater Tavern is also a microbrewery, and offers a wonderful line of award winning house beers that change with the seasons. They offer growlers to go and a round of samples of each of the five types of beer they have on tap.
We visited on busy Friday night and had a half hour wait, but did so in the fully stocked and energetic bar, centrally located in the restaurant, where we could enjoy some of the house-made beers and listen to some music piped in that set an upbeat tone for the evening. They also have deck bar, heated in the cooler weather and open-air in warm weather.
But while the microbrewery part of Sweetwater is fun, the food is just plain great. I happen to have friends and family who like to substitute sides and take sauces from one dish and add it to another, and the wait staff take it all in stride, so feel free to ask. Some dishes on the menu are just good, but most are outstanding so you won’t be disappointed by almost anything you order. And despite the Southwest theme, I recommend you stick to the seafood menu items. It’s really what they do best.
For starters, tables are offered fresh breads made by Best Buns Bread Company, one of the GARs sister companies. Ozzie rolls (like savory doughnuts), cheddar cheese bread, raisin bread, and other artisan breads are paired with freshly whipped, slightly sweetened honey poppyseed butter. We chose the special appetizer of the evening: lightly fried oysters over a bed of richly dressed greens, crumbled blue cheese and bacon. It was excellent. Other good choices for appetizers are blue crab fritters, calamari, tex-mex eggrolls, or firecracker shrimp. They’re all great.
As for entrees, I admit I’m a crab cake snob. I’ve had crab cakes all over the world, from the finest seafood places to hole-in-the-wall Maryland crab houses that say they have the best. But to date I’ve never had a better crab cake than at Sweetwater Tavern. Solid lump crabmeat, very lightly moistened with a horseradish aioli, patted with a crispy coating of what I am guessing is buttered panko bread crumbs on top and bottom, finished in the pan to golden perfection. There’s really no way to improve them.
The tough thing for me at Sweetwater Tavern is bringing myself to order anything else so I can at least try the other menu items. But that’s what my companions are for. I like the health boost of cruciferous veggies so I substituted brussels sprouts (drizzled with parmesan cream sauce) for the fries. The thinly cut shoestrings are fabulous, though, so feel free to choose those if you prefer.
The night we visited my companion ordered the 16 oz black angus prime rib, rare. It was served with a sumptuous loaded baked potato and the house chopped salad. The meat was wonderful, fork-tender and delicious, and the huge portion was more than enough to share. Sweetwater Tavern’s house salad is the perfect mix of tastes and textures, thinly sliced romaine lettuce, buttery rich croutons, freshly roasted corn, chopped tomato, fresh basil, and a delicious buttermilk dressing. Believe it or not, even the way they thinly slice the romaine lettuce catches the dressing perfectly and makes this salad stand out among other house salads you may be fond of. Given a choice, I’d pick the house chopped salad.
And although I’ve heard grumblings about spotty service at Sweetwater Tavern, I’ve never experienced it. I do know that if things go awry with your order, the manager is quick to offer a gift card of $25 or more for your return visit. And upon your return with the card, the staff is alerted to your VIP status and goes above and beyond to treat you well. They do not like losing customers.
Back to the food. Entrees range from $9 to $24. For those of you looking to eat out on a budget, some of the dinner salads are great bargains. The offer large portions and interesting taste and texture combinations of nuts, some with dried cranberries, and you can add smoked salmon or flash-fried tempura-style or roasted chicken, sesame-crusted tuna, and more. Sweetwater does ribs well, and I’ve heard their “world’s greatest fajitas” are also worth the trip.
Desserts are very good. Ask about the banana pudding (nothing like Grandma used to make, thankfully.) It’s not on the menu, so you have to ask for it. It's whipped cream-based pudding, fresh bananas and caramel and chocolate sauce drizzles, with deep fried and crumbled nilla wafers; it's unusual and worth the trip alone. Lots of people love the warm flourless chocolate waffle or key lime or apple pies. They’re all good, and most are ala mode. Just plan to share: the portions are large.
And though Centreville has plenty of small standalone restaurants and little ethnic mom-and pop restaurants not to be missed, is one of only a small handful of larger, chain-type but well-thought out restaurants for Centreville residents to enjoy. Put it on your restaurant to-do list and get there, but call ahead to save a long wait. You’ll be glad you did.