With its ideal location in the center of downtown Amherst, a hip exterior and a contemporary menu, the Monkey Bar could easily have become the definitive going-out spot in town. Unfortunately, it fails to deliver. The first signs of trouble are apparent upon entry. Half of the restaurant looks like a swanky urban hangout that maxed-out its decorating budget before completion: a mosaic seductively glistens along its main wall, while factory-issue metal chairs litter the dining area. The other half is an oversized bar outfitted with mirrors and a TV. During the summer, however, there is an outdoor patio where it's possible to enjoy a pleasant al fresco lunch.
In fact, lunch is pretty much the only thing you can count on enjoying at the Monkey Bar. The prices are right and the sandwiches tasty and well constructed-the blue cheese and bacon burger makes the ones at ABC across the street all but irrelevant. Regrettably, dinner is overpriced and the food inconsistent. The split personality evidenced in the decor and name (the Monkey Bar vs. Bistro 63-why can't they do us all a favor and just pick one?) extends to the extensive,
haphazard menu, where Cajun-style dishes sit uncomfortably close to Mediterranean- and Asian-inspired fare. You'd do best to steer clear of the limp, oily vegetarian spring rolls, as well as their Asian slaw and pesto-crusted sea bass served on a bed of oddly fruity succotash-like an orgy gone wrong, these ingredients should never have gone to bed together. Purple cabbage and tofu with red pepper carries a bad orangey sauce with an institutional-Asian taste.
Also avoid standards like an insipid Caesar salad, tender sliced beef tenderloin ruined by chicken-nugget-style barbecue sauce, and dull gumbo. A smarter bet are the plump, enticingly browned crab cakes. Better yet, save your appetite for their desserts, which are unapologetically decadent, as evidenced in a gooey, comforting sour-cherry bread pudding. Like everything else here, the service is hit-or-miss. While the waitstaff are very accommodating and friendly, be prepared to hunt someone down if you want water or, say, your check. Later, when the place turns into a club, the bouncers can be brusque. In short, while the Monkey Bar wants to offer small-town Amherst some big-city sophistication, it doesn't quite have its act together-especially not given the prices. For a taste of the big city, don't gamble here: take your money and head to Northampton.