...And a little gastropub shall lead them
I've carried on in these pages before about the value of local dining. No matter how great the grand restaurants become, for most of us they have very little to do with adding joy to everyday life.
A city like Tokyo understands this: Somebody is doing something wonderful with food on almost every corner. Other cities sort of get it: In Vienna, you're never more than a block away from great pastries and good coffee. Down on street level, it's the little things that count.
Of course, cities only get the small wonders that they deserve, and sometimes a whole wave of delightful food creeps in under the cultural establishment’s radar. This may be the case with the recent flowering of restaurants that feature a selection of delicious, opulent beers and excellent food to match. I'll follow the trend and use the slightly unappetizing term gastropubs.
These small wonders escape some notice because beer is caught in a cultural quicksand in its association with downscale pursuits. Even the best beers are trapped in a word-association game with the verb swill. But in a way, this is a blessing. Although I hear rumors of sightings of beer snobs, I've never actually met one. Most of the folks who crowd the bar at Monk's (for example) come there for the sheer love of the good sudsy Belgian stuff that Tom Peters pours.
There's a ripple effect too. Not every beer bar is a gastropub, but those that make the grade raise the bar for everyone else. In the following examples, all the beer bars except Monk's— in restaurant-rich Center City— have established new high standards for their respective neighborhoods.
An international reputation
Monk's. This is the granddaddy. People in Oregon know three things about Philadelphia, and one of them is Monk's. I met a Londoner with business in New York who took the train down for the day just to have a pint or three here. Hundreds of bottles on one of the most evocative beer lists in the country, not to mention 14 constantly changing taps. Moules frites, veal cheeks, the most amazingly priced duck breast salad ($12) and a fine old bar burger.
16th and Spruce. (215) 545-7005 or www.monkscafe.com.
No more smokescreen
Standard Tap. This is the sort of neighborhood bar where you'll see kids nodding off next to their parents, games of darts being contested— and first-class food and beer. Wifty service and an almost impenetrable smokescreen once kept this otherwise interesting place off the must-visit list many people. These days, the air is clear and you can actually taste the food.
Second and Poplar Sts. (215) 238-0630 or www.standardtap.com.
Keeping South Philly honest
Le Virtù. There's nothing new about a southern Italian restaurant in South Philly, but this is the one that will keep the others honest. This place opened shortly after I returned from a stint teaching culinary school in Puglia, and I’ve been repeatedly impressed with both the quality of the food and the devotion to the style of the Abruzzo region. Chef Luciana Spurio is an innovator and a traditionalist; be sure to try the rabbit ravioli.
I’ve included Le Virtù in this article because its bar has made a commitment to great beer as an accompaniment to the cuisine, and it's paying off. Le Virtù’s list is modest in size, but reasonably priced. The harmonies are surprising and delightful and regularly outshine the wines.
1927 E. Passyunk (between Mifflin and McKean). (215) 261-5626 or www.levirtu.com.
Crowded, loud and charming
Memphis Taproom. This new place (opened April 2008) calls itself a neighborhood kitchen and taproom, and although it's well beyond strolling range of Center City, it's likely to create a little satellite of good food and drink in the area that it calls Port Fishington. It's crowded and loud, but service is both fast and charming. The beer list is medium-sized, thoughtfully done and reasonably priced. The menu includes vegetarian and vegan selections that may cause a few people to hail a cab to get there.
2331 E. Cumberland St. (at Memphis). ((215) 425-4460 or www.memphistaproom.com.
Braised lamb in cheese steak territory
The Devil's Den. There's nothing particularly infernal about this open, sunny beer bar just between the Italian Market and Passyunk Crossing. It offers a dozen beers on tap with some thought to seasonality— plenty of tangy wheat beers on offer right now— and 100 different bottles. If you hurry, you may get a chance to try the Schneider Aventinus. It's a double-bock wheat beer that manages to be both refreshing and immensely rich and satisfying.
Our small sample of the bar food, the braised lamb sandwich and moules frites suggests that the kitchen alone could be worth the trip. Will this trend start to cut into the pasty cheese steak business in the 'hood? Stay tuned. As of this writing, desserts were nothing to write about, so I won't.
1148 S. 11th St. (at Ellsworth). (215) 339-0855.
End Note: If you've never found a beer that you liked, spring is a great time to change your mind. Plenty of wheat beers are available right now that have little or no hoppy bitterness and are tastier than most sparkling wines with less alcohol and fewer calories. Ask for them at your local gastropub. And let me know what you think.