Tavern on France goes overboard with 400,000 menu options

Tavern customers use ordering cards to design their dinners, like the Farmers Market pizza

Tavern customers use ordering cards to design their dinners, like the Farmers Market pizza

At Tavern on France the other day, I studied a notepad printed with a list of ingredients and check-boxes as I considered ordering a custom "build-a-salad." For the base price of $8.50, I could select a cheese (mozzarella, cheddar, smoked Gouda, blue cheese crumbles, Parmesan, pepper jack); four mix-ins (broccoli, green olives, shredded carrot, craisins, and 16 others); and one "crunch" (six options, including tortilla strips and candied pecans). I could add an array of meats and costlier vegetables for a modest fee.

Between the 44 toppings and 14 salad dressings, the sheer number of combinations was a little overwhelming. Once, a diner who was apparently very adventurous or paralyzed by indecision checked every box on the order pad. ("It was a four-pound salad," Tavern general manager Shaun Hinson recalls. "It took two to-go boxes to take home their leftovers.")

While Tavern on France does have several "chef-built" American-casual menu items, so far as I know it's the first local eatery in its price category to cede so much control to the diner. They stock the salad bar, and you tell them what to scoop. Factoring in the custom-designed burgers and pizzas, Tavern on France claims to offer an astounding 400,000 menu options. The question arises: Is "have it your way" the way of the future, or is so much more much too much? Is this just what diners have always desired, or a variation on the oft-heard lament of online daters: What is the point of thousands of options when all you really want is the right one?

The Tavern replaces the short-lived restaurant Via, across the street from Southdale in the building that also once housed Pizzeria Uno. It's still owned by Hemisphere Partners, the group behind Mission American and Kabobi, among others, who redecorated the dining room and bar, reformulated the restaurant's menu, and lowered prices to cast a much wider net than most local, independent restaurateurs.

The new look reflects the shift to mass appeal. Via's jewel tones have been recast in monochromatic beige and browns, its bold carpet and upholstery patterns replaced by solid shades. It's almost as if the decorator feared a splash of color or a decorative chandelier might offend the future guests. A few black-and-white photos—Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey boxing each other, for example—give it a vaguely retro vibe. (I suspect the whole reproduction vintage photo thing is supposed to suggest a family-friendly, neighborhood vibe in the same way montages of clinking wine glasses, laughter, and walks on the beach are the romantic comedy's shortcut for character development.) The decor reminded me of McCoy's Public House or Wildfire in the way it attempted to bring back bygone days, yet was too new to have developed any sort of authentic patina. Outside, though, the patio remains as pretty as Via's, and a few trees have been removed to make it more visible to the street. Separated from traffic by a grassy berm, it's an aspirational billboard for the good life, punctuated with bright flowers, roaring fire pits, and jaunty red umbrellas.

Tavern on France might be considered Edina's version of Applebee's, and it seems to be exactly what the community wanted. The first time I visited, at 7:30 on a Wednesday night, the place was busier than a Saturday morning at the Room & Board Outlet. There was a 45-minute wait for a table in the dining room, at least an hour for one outside. Fortunately, within 15 minutes we had a spot in the bar area, which was large and loud and a little plain, lacking its former gauzy curtains that had inspired my friend to describe Via's bar as the "sort of place you would go to meet your mistress."

The crowds of businesspeople, couples, shoppers, and three-generation Edynasties are likely already comfortable requesting specifications and substitutions when they order—some, I'm sure, feel entitled to them. Many wear the grownup equivalent of a prep-school uniform: women with spendy-looking bags, shoes, and jewelry; guys in polo shirts, designer jeans, and flip-flops. (I saw one patriarch arrive in a vintage Jaguar convertible with the personalized license plate "PAPA BR.") In a community known for being as family-oriented as it is moneyed, a kid in cleats and soccer jersey stands out less than a guy in a T-shirt and baseball cap.

But no matter how high your net worth climbs, I don't think you ever lose your taste for buffalo chicken, the quintessential blue-collar bar food. At Tavern on France, the spicy fluorescent-orange meat can be ordered on a cracker-crust pizza. The celery bits and salty, pungent blue cheese cut the chicken's greasy burn and brought back fond memories of the buffalo chicken pie at Uno's.

Tavern on France does well when it follows the former pizzeria's formula, offering quick service and giant portions of comfort foods that embrace the fat-salt-carb trifecta. The artichoke crab dip hit the same marks: a grilled garlic baguette dipped into a greasy, creamy cheese-mayonnaise dip flecked with spinach, artichoke, and briny crab. It's one of those things that is what it is: tastes good, not good for you, and awfully addictive.

I dare any build-your-own burger designer to top the Widowmaker, an oversized, why-didn't-I-think-of-that, two-in-one hamburger/Philly cheesesteak combo. Its bun was practically six inches across, and its half-pound patty looked the size of something an elephant might have dropped. The thing practically toppled out of its basket, an avalanche of caramelized onions, mushrooms, thin-sliced beef, onion strings, garlic aioli, and five kinds of melty cheese. The flavors are lively enough to make you want to eat the whole thing, though I wouldn't recommend that without tacking on a surgeon general's warning.

Tavern on France's all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch buffet provides another opportunity to overdo it. Priced at $13.99 for adults and $5.99 for kids, it's a decent value—though the a la carte add-ons can get pricey. Each table receives a little cast-iron skillet filled with hot cinnamon rolls, which looked cute but tasted rather dry. Then diners may request a build-your-own omelet (of course!) and help themselves to the usual spread of scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, and the like. The options were better than average—three types of scones, fruit that wasn't brown, bruised, or underripe—yet they still suffered from buffet-style service. Few breakfast items improve with time, and inevitably the pancakes turn tough and the eggs get cold.

Still, while I was nitpicking about the canned pineapple at the pancake-topping bar (so inferior to fresh!), crying toddlers had dried their tears and begun happily smothering their flapjacks with whipped cream, strawberries, and chocolate chips. With the Tavern's low prices and eager-to-please service (one night, our server actually sprinted to go punch our appetizer order into the computer before happy-hour prices increased), I can see why diners would prefer it to the local Perkins. (Some neighborhood parents have been known to visit the Tavern twice in one night—first eating dinner as a family, then returning for a glass of wine after going home to put the kids to bed.)

But if you're hoping, as I was, for something that aims higher than Perkins, the Tavern can do that, too, as long as you know what to do. First, call ahead and get your name on the list for the patio. It's a perfect spot for one of the reasonably priced house cocktails, many of which use trendy ingredients such as the acai berry juice found in a drink dubbed the Detoxitini. Then order one of the chef-built items such as the Tuscan chicken, served in a creamy butter-wine-lemon sauce with sautéed spinach and caramelized prosciutto, alongside steamed broccoli and vermicelli noodles. Finish off with a zebra-striped, seven-layer chocolate cake topped with whipped cream and whiskey caramel. (Skip the berry pie and the dessert nachos, an exuberant mess of fried wonton-topped ice cream sundae that drew more attention from staring diners at neighboring tables than from anyone in my own party.)

If you are the sort of person who orders like Sally in When Harry Met Sally..., then go ahead and build every last salad and pizza and burger your heart—or stomach—desires. The Tavern's setup is perfectly suited to picky eaters, vegetarians, and those with dietary restrictions.

But I'm in the old-school camp that still wants a restaurant to have more expertise about food than its customers. If the cooks don't have better ideas about good eating than I do, then why wouldn't I just eat at home? To me, a restaurant should be more than a convenient cafeteria, where someone else does the shopping and the prep and washes the dishes. I would hope it might jostle me out of my routine and show me something new, not just give the customer what she says she wants, but something she didn't even yet know she desired.