Joe Sixpack: New pubs, just a few hops from Center City

Leigh Maida (left) and Brendan Hartranft own Local 44.
Leigh Maida (left) and Brendan Hartranft own Local 44.
Posted: January 16, 2009

THE NEW YEAR stumbled out of the gate when Center City's Brasserie Perrier closed after an 11-year run. The classy joint had a dependable beer selection, not to mention a beautiful bar.

But despair not, for there's some intriguing growth in the city's beer-drinking scene in the outlying neighborhoods. West Philly, for example. Now, here's a puzzlingly under-tapped swath where I barely need a thumb to count the bars devoted to craft beer: White Dog Cafe, Mad Mex, Dock Street Brewpub, Fiume and Bridgewater's. If I'm being generous, I'll toss in Slainte and New Deck Tavern, too.

Other than Dock Street, though, they're all crowded into the Penn/Drexel nexus. What about the rest of the neighborhood?

Brendan (Spanky) Hartranft and Leigh Maida - the couple who last year opened the Memphis Taproom, in Port Richmond, to a big buzz - wondered about the same thing, especially since their home lies in that vast turf south of Spruce Street.

"I kind of wanted a chill place where I could get a decent beer, a decent bite to eat, just down the block," Maida said. "There are lots of places like that in the city, but not in West Philly."

Now there's one: The partners opened Local 44, at 44th and Spruce streets, on New Year's Day. Those who remember the place as Kelliann's won't recognize it any more. Stripped down and rebuilt, everything inside was either painted or trashed.

"There's not a surface in here that we haven't painstakingly thought through, right down to the distress marks on the bench," Maida said. "I hate it when everything looks so shiny and new that you're afraid to put down a glass or coffee mug."

The spectacular 20-tap beer lineup is Hartranft's baby. I won't drop names because the kegs are kicking so quickly. (OK, here's one that'll be gone by the time you read this: Cantillon Lou Pepe, '06 vintage, from Belgium.) Expect to find all the locals, plus cult American crafts (Bear Republic, Russian River) and imports (De Ranke, Conniston). There's only one bottle in stock: Orval - Hartranft's favorite. No BudMillerCoors, no PBR, and not just because that's not craft beer.

"We do not want this to become a college bar," said Maida, noting the off-campus housing in the area. "We're a neighborhood joint. When Penn kids are in a bar, they consume the atmosphere around them, and it becomes all about them. I don't want the neighborhood people to come in and say, 'Oh wait, college bar,' and never come back in."

The jukebox is a killer, the food is fresh and the sight lines to the sidewalk remind you that you're drinking in West Philly. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Walk into the Lucky 13 Pub (1820 S. 13th St., South Philly), and you'll be excused for guessing that it has been there forever. The walls are lit by old Schmidt's lanterns. A Ms. Pac-Man machine blinks on and off in the back room.

And owner Clark Newman - a guy you'd swear you've seen around town since Rizzo was mayor - is at the end of the bar, smiling.

The place, indeed, has been at the corner of 13th and Passyunk for years, previously as a chicken-parm Italian bar/restaurant called Vincenzo's. And Newman has been slinging suds for years, too, going all the way back to the days of Walnut Street's long-departed Ribit restaurant (and more recently at Manayunk's Le Bus).

In this case, familiarity breeds warmth.

Beer lovers will find a tight list of local taps (Yards ESA, Golden Monkey, Kenzinger and O'Reilly's Stout, among others) and an ambitious menu featuring wonderful, reasonably priced comfort food.

On one recent rainy night, I ordered up a small plate of sausage and peppers ($10) - a South Philly classic that might normally be headed for a pairing with a glass of pedestrian red table wine.

This dish, though, features Merguez sausage - a dry, spicy variety typically made with lamb - accompanied by a scoop of minty couscous and an herbal tomato gravy.

A glass of chianti would've masked the delicate, aromatic flavors; a beaujolais would've been bruised by the sausage's kick.

This dish called for beer - assertive enough to stand up to the spice without overwhelming each bite. A glass of bitter Rt. 113 IPA did the trick, its hops playing counterpoint to the tomato and mint.

Credit chef Ben Johnson (formerly of the Plough and the Stars) with kitchen creations that, in another, less-fortunate town, would be drawing raves and a long waiting list.

In Philly, where the American gastropub phenomenon was born? Give Lucky 13 time, perhaps expand the bottle selection, and people will be talking about the joint in the same breath as Southwark and Standard Tap.

Next week, I'll visit some new destinations in the 'burbs. But before that, here are a few more recent additions to Philly's beer scene:

_ Prohibition Taproom (501 N. 13th St., Loft District): Very good taps, bottles and food from the folks who run Café Lift across the street.

_ The Irish Pol (45 S. 3rd St., Old City): Massive, surprising tap list draws a diverse, funky crowd at the former Jager's.

_ Tied House (2001 Hamilton St., Franklintown): Large, modern restaurant reminiscent of the Iron Hill brewpub chain, featuring brews from Montco's Gen. Lafayette Inn & Brewery.

_ The Pub & Kitchen (20th and Lombard streets, Graduate Hospital): Gastropub with white napkins, at the former Chaucer's Tabard Inn.

_ Earth Bread + Brewery (7136 Germantown Ave., W. Mount Airy). Excellent beer from former Heavyweight brewer Tom Baker; fresh, thin-crust flatbread.

_ Kung Fu Necktie (1248 N. Front St., Kensington). Good taps, live music under the El. *

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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