Lori Lucas

Like most thinking people, I dislike theme restaurants. There are occasional, well-executed exceptions, but for the most part, themes usually signify nothing more than the restaurant hoping to distract you from the food. (I don't buy the "themes are fun" argument. Eating = fun. Drinking = fun. My server wearing a jerkin = embarrassing for everyone involved.)

The forces behind the travel-themed North 45 have largely avoided common theme restaurant pitfalls. The food is quite good, for the most part, and the atmosphere is one of easygoing clubbiness: Small tables are arrayed cozily along one booth-lined wall, while the glittering, multi-tiered corner bar is made even more formidable by the ladder that must be scaled to get to the top shelves (I'd be damn nervous monkeying down that ladder with a bottle of Macallan 24 in my hand). When it comes to the décor, though, the travel theme adds an unwelcome touch of "flair" à la Office Space: As my dinner date put it, "It looks like Cost Plus was having a sale on pre-framed maps."

The travel theme is expressed with a lighter hand in the menu. Wisely avoiding the culinary Epcot Center-effect that often characterizes "international cuisine" (where chow mein, quesadillas, and ravioli might jostle for space on the same menu), a pan-continental flavor palate is instead conveyed via eight different preparations of mussels, ranging from coconut lemongrass to chorizo with tomato and cumin. Each dish is paired with North 45's excellent fries, seasoned appropriately: chili-lime, curry, etc. I went with the pancetta and roasted shallots cooked in garlic white wine butter, and was pleasantly surprised by generous chunks of chewy pancetta, tender mussels, and a side of sea-salted fries.

Other food options include a BLT with lemon-basil mayo, roasted chicken with garlic mashed potatoes, and a grilled flat-iron steak with onion rings. The hefty burger comes with pepper bacon and aged cheddar on a toasted ciabatta roll, with a side of seasoned fries; there are also a couple of salads, from an anchovy-heavy Caesar to frisée salad with pear and bacon. The pear and frisée salad sounded good, but proved hard to actually eat (untamed frisée can be a little overwhelming; North 45's salad was kind of like eating a bowl full of hair.)

During happy hour (4-6 pm daily), appetizers are half-off: The antipasti platter with several kinds of cheese and meat is a steal at $5.50, while a warm, crusty bruschetta, and the aforementioned fries are guaranteed crowd-pleasers.

The travel theme also turns up on the cocktail menu, with a list of house drinks boasting international influences. While I'm not sure that a Spanish coffee is really representative of Spain, it's still a cute conceit—and the bartenders here know what they're doing. Try the Pisco Sour, with brandy, fresh lemon, and egg white (don't be put off by the egg white; it just gives the drink a nice, slurpable froth).

The best way to appreciate North 45, for my money, is to forget about the theme all together. Find a seat where the mounted display of international currency is out of your sightline, resist the urge to reminisce about the month you spent in Europe, and concentrate on enjoying the quality food and excellent cocktails that North 45 has to offer.