Restaurant Report: BucketHead Tavern

8039 Ray Mears Blvd., 865-394-9936

At first glance, you might mistake the BucketHead Tavern for any number of things—sports bar, gastro pub, watering hole, ski lodge, etc. And, in truth, it possesses some of each genre's quality. Certainly on a game day, you could find the place awash in cheer and beer, and it's probable that with darkness the lights get lower and the music gets louder. Still, you're just as likely to find old friends whiling away the afternoon by making mischief on a chessboard or discover that a certain table is usually occupied by a group of women who will brook no interference with their weekly ladies' night out.

Often, places that try to be too many things to too many people fail miserably because they end up pleasing no one. Yet, the BucketHead Tavern seems to have found a workable formula that relies on an open atmosphere with the right balance of food, drink, and darts that's welcoming to all comers.

Self-described "glutton for punishment" and owner, Troy Hale, frequently refers to the tavern as an island of misfit toys, in part because of his refusal to define an ideal customer. Hale is enthusiastic on this point and nearly proclaims, "We didn't want to make it a sports bar, but we did want to make it easy to watch sports. And we still wanted a place that would encourage the waning art of conversation. It's a place were anybody can have a good time."

Hale's quest for diversity shows in the tavern's offerings. The wine list presents an interesting assortment of well-chosen bottles from off the beaten path, including an off-dry Oregon rosé by the glass. There are plenty of comfortable choices, too, available in glass or bottle.

The menu includes standard fare that's gussied up a bit, or, as Hale describes it, "feel-good food with a gourmet touch." Nachos are covered with a bison chili, the fish sandwich is blackened mahi served with tropical horseradish chutney, and fire-roasted red pepper hummus comes with naan. On the other hand, you'll find burgers, chicken tenders, wings, quesadilla and an excellent basket of thick-cut fries. Daily chalkboard specials add neat options and reflect the kitchen's imagination.

The tavern is a welcome addition to a part of town that's dominated by national names with dull wine lists. In Hale's words, it is, "an island of local in a sea of chain."

8039 Ray Mears Blvd., 394-9936

Monday-Wednesday: 11 a.m.–1am, Thursday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-3 a.m., Sunday: 12 p.m.-12 a.m.

Must Haves

Blackened Mahi Mahi Tenders: Fish-stick-sized strips of mahi come gently blackened outside and moistly flaky inside. They're pretty tasty by themselves, but the accompanying tropical horseradish chutney adds a wild and refreshing edge that leaves just a tingle of spice about the lips. It's pleasantly light and calls out for a glass of Riesling or, perhaps, off-dry rosé.

BucketHead Burger: In a world of burgers, this 16-ounce offering fares pretty well owing to the pleasant application of mesquite seasoning and gentle use of salt. Well-done and happily crispy strips of Allan Benton's bacon, thick pickle slices, a Kaiser roll, and sharp cheddar cheese complete the package. The thick-cut fries that come with the burger are mildly seasoned to showcase the fact that they taste like real potato and not crispy grease.

Scotty Dog: Founded on a frankfurter made of bison, it's a hot dog to remember from the first bite. For a fairly huge dog that requires a hoagie roll to encompass it, it retains good snap and concentrated flavor. In fact, despite the tasteful blanket of shredded cheddar, slaw, and delicious-on-its-own chili, the flavor of the dog itself remains dominant. Scotty remains unidentified, but he deserves a pat on the back.