The beat on Tempo

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After leaving a restaurant that will go unnamed without having been served (not a drink or even an ounce of eye contact), we wandered into Tempo, one of the newest additions to the city’s replete culinary scene. Owner Stuart Cunningham and his son, Brice (part owner in Fleurie and Petit Pois), greeted us and we settled into brown leather stools at the mahogany-topped bar. A gigantic mounted water buffalo head loomed over us. Behind us crouched crushed red velvet banquettes with curved black-and-white cowhide backs. Church lights and a mother-of-pearl chandelier from the Philippines lit the restaurant. There was so much to look at, we almost forgot to drink.

Good taste runs in the family. Brice Cunningham (above), whose father, Stuart, owns Tempo, is a co-owner of French eateries Fleurie and Petit Pois.  (Photo by John Robinson)

When a new restaurant opens in an already crowded marketplace (not to mention in an economy singing the blues), you have to wonder how it will stand out. In biz speak, it’s called your “unique selling proposition” or USP. In industry speak, it’s called your “thing.”
Tempo opened in September on downtown’s Fifth Street mere weeks before Commonwealth cast a shadow over the alleyway with a shiny copper-trimmed skybar that attracts patrons who hear the lively din from the bricks below. The skybar is Commonwealth’s thing. So, what is Tempo’s?

It starts with the name. Brice explained that in music, the tempo is the underlying beat that stays the same no matter the culture from which it comes. In other words, tempo is universal. The explanation helps the décor feel more eclectic than disjointed and the menu’s international offerings more intentional than random.

Tempo’s executive chef, Mark Henrichs, came from Chicago for the job and cooks with the fearless approach of a 30-year-old American not married to one single cuisine or style. At the bar (open from noon until 1am), the menu includes an Indian fried potato snack served with tamarind and cumin raita, all-American potato chips (salt & vinegar or spicy BBQ), Asian tempura (veggie or shrimp), and Italian-style housemade ricotta.

Beverages span the globe as well. The Ginger & Spice is made with agave, ginger ale, Don Julio Reposada, thai chile, and lime. A $5 glass of house white and red are called Tempo Blanco and Tempo Rojo respectively and taste as friendly and Spanish as their names suggest. America, Australia, France, and Italy are also represented in the other 19 choices of wines by the glass. Beers range from the domestic (Bud Light) to the far-flung (Meinklang Ancient Grains Ale from Austria).

Once we were seated for dinner, it became clear that service is a big part of Tempo’s thing. Stuart pulled the table out from the banquette for us and asked if he could pair our wines to our meal. When the well-chosen white (Loire Valley chenin blanc) arrived, it was so cold that I cupped my hands around the glass to warm it. Stuart noticed this and promptly removed the bottle from the ice bucket, wiped it free of moisture, and set it on our table. At another table, a woman began to remove her jacket and Brice, who spied this from his front door post, glided gracefully across the dining room to help her. When a server put my husband’s ribeye with roasted parsnips, baby carrots, and foie butter bordelaise with the meat at 6 o’clock instead of 12 o’clock, Stuart rotated it before bidding us “bon appétit.”

It’s what the French call “savoir-faire,” or the art of knowing the appropriate thing to do and say in every situation. And it’s something that the Cunninghams—who’ve run restaurants all over the world—do very, very well.

The whole place feels posh and luxurious—something we’ve become unaccustomed to in such lean times. You pay for it, of course, with entrées between $18 and $29, but there are deals too. I could have made a meal of the $7 vegetable fritto misto. The tempura coating was crispy and perfectly salted, the yuzu aioli rich but punchy and amidst the usual suspects of zucchini and yellow squash, there were escarole leaves, fennel slices, and rounds of lemon. Order creatively and you’ll have space and pennies left for dessert, which are inspired. A trio of housemade ice creams included strawberry, coconut, and chile-spiked chocolate and a lemon tart with blueberries was topped with toasted marshmallow instead of meringue.

Trying a new place when time and money are tight can feel like a risky investment, and the team at Tempo seems to appreciate this. Let them pamper you with an evening of attentive service, plush fabrics, and international escapism. Or, go for lunch—you’ll get all that luxury at a fraction of the price.

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