Munchbar opened in Bellevue Square on Friday. I was invited by Wilson PR to attend the grand opening. Normally I couldn't be bothered to voluntarily go to Bellevue and deal with the Kafkaesque traffic. But then I heard that the celebrity guest would be Mario Lopez, who played A.C. Slater on my beloved Saved by the Bell. The cloud of dust, comically shaped like my body as I bolted out the door to attend the opening, could be seen from space.
After enduring an almost Soviet vetting process in which our driver's licenses were scanned for some reason, we were ushered inside the 6,300-square-foot edifice. It looks a lot like the Maxx, Slater's favorite (and seemingly ONLY) restaurant on Saved by the Bell. There's lots of wiggly neon crap all over, and spray-painted murals. This was a great sign: They'd gone out of their way to make sure Slater would feel at home in his natural habitat!
An even better sign: free alcohol. Cocktails were as uniformly syrupy as an Anne Geddes retrospective, and all were very alcoholic. The Munch Margarita was a strong yet pretty typical version of the classic, served on the rocks. Cherry Limeade tasted like a melted Jell-o shot. And the sadly named Munch Nuts was basically a glass of rum with coconut milk and pineapple juice in it. I tried to order a PBR, which Munchbar sells on tap, but was told beer wouldn't be available. It's just as well, since a pint of PBR at Munchbar sells for $6.50, a price so obscene it would make the concessions manager at an NFL stadium blush.
Food was being passed around. The cheeseburger egg rolls were filled with ground beef and cheese sauce and topped with a small glob of ketchup. Mankind's dream of shaping Hamburger Helper into a cylinder has been achieved! And an oyster shooter was layered like a briny parfait, with herbs, hot sauce, and some kind of granita layered atop a kumamoto oyster. The oyster dubiously refused to slide down the shot glass and into my mouth, so all I could taste was the coarse, icy trickle of granita.
One of the best things I ate was the macaroni and cheese ball. This was a competently prepared version of the classic fried mac n' cheese: A nugget of soft pasta in a creamy and cheesy sauce was breaded in a crunchy breadcrumb crust and drizzled with ivory stripes of what the waitresses kept alternately calling either "black pepper" or "black truffle" aioli. I tasted neither pepper nor truffle, and the aioli was certainly not even black, so I'm going to have to call bullshit on this sauce.
Chicken and waffles were also good. A snippet of waffle, foamy and crunchy as good waffles should be, was skewered atop a juicy chunk of fried chicken. The waffle's grid held a tiny reservoir of syrup and bacon bits. It was sweet without being cloying, salty, juicy, and crisp. If they'd have somehow figured out a way to introduce coffee flavor into this, it would've been like every breakfast you ever ate in one bite.
The sliders were even better. The patty was scarcely larger than one of those JFK 50- cent pieces, which makes this one of the smallest sliders I've ever eaten. The meat itself was proficiently cooked, with a great smoky char outside, but still pink inside. This was topped with a small tile of melted cheese, a ribbon of lettuce, and a little dollop of something the waitresses went to great pains to describe as "fancy sauce," though I would've called it "average sauce." The buns weren't the best, and in fact tasted a bit stale, but overall the sliders lived up to their name because the number of sliders that slid into my stomach that night easily rivals the number of cocks that slid into your mom, which as we all know is no small number.
Munchbar managing partners Robert Frey and Bart Mahoney were on hand to keep the festivities under control. Both are experienced restaurateurs: Frey owns several nightclubs in Las Vegas. Mahoney is a wunderkind who at one point opened 45 restaurants in one week. His resume includes impressive stints at Restaurant Daniel, Wolfgang Puck, and Spago. "I think our beer list speaks for itself," Mahoney told me. He's obviously done his homework, since Munchbar's taps include hyper-local favorites from breweries like Two Beers, Georgetown, Elysian, Fremont, and the Pike Brewing Company. He was effusive with his praise for Seattle's brewmasters. "I sincerely think you guys make the best beer in the country."
Mahoney encouraged me to check out Piano Bash, the dueling piano bar which adjoins Munchbar. "We didn't see much live entertainment in Bellevue. We wanted to provide that for our customers," he told me. "We're excited about Piano Bash."
Upon his request, I went next door. Twin grand pianos were lined up back-to-back. The dudes were playing a goofy cover of "Gin & Juice." I filled out a card, but my request for Mozart's Piano Sonata #11 was summarily ignored, so I left.
At this point I was getting anxious, because Mario Lopez had not yet showed his face, and it was past 7:30. Less than 30 minutes before I could grill A.C. Slater! So many questions! Was he sad that Kelly ended up with Zack and not him? Did he regret having a mullet? Has he seen Screech's sex tape? I did, however, see Miss Washington, who was conveniently wearing her sash. People claimed that the Bachelor was there too, but I couldn't pick out that dude from a lineup, and I really don't care.
Unfortunately, 8:00 came and went, and they stopped handing out free booze and started letting the general public in. Mario Lopez didn't show, and my heart broke the way Slater's heart broke when he and Jessie split up in episode 33-17. His plane had been delayed. Sadly, my desire to not pay $6.50 for a PBR vastly outweighs my interest in Mario Lopez, so we got the fuck out of there. Apparently he showed up later. Knowing my luck, this probably occurred one second after I left.
I'm skeptical of Munchbar, mostly because when I go to Bellevue my body recoils as violently as if my scrotum had just been flattened by a steamroller. The food is OK, but seems a bit pricey for what seems like the kind of frozen appetizers you can buy in bags of 200 from Costco. This isn't, after all, the kind of place you go specifically to eat. The beer list is very good, but that $6.50 pint of PBR makes me vomit with rage, when it should instead make me vomit with alcohol poisoning because I drank too many of them.
Still, Munchbar's concept has been proven in Las Vegas, where Mahoney told me they seat 300-400 covers per night. Frey and Mahoney are capable restaurateurs with years of experience, and refreshing honesty (the menu admits that they aren't happy with the buns for the sliders). If you like hanging out in Bellevue, and if you like being rejected by piano players, and you don't mind the soul-crushing disappointment of not being able to reminisce with Slater about the time he bravely told Johnny Dakota that he didn't want to get high, then Munchbar is definitely for you!
Munchbar is located at 505 Bellevue Square in Bellevue. For inquiries call 425-454-6862