The gastropub: No longer trendy, but still cool

The exterior of the Pub & Kitchen (20th and Lombard). Eric Mencher/Staff Photographer
The exterior of the Pub & Kitchen (20th and Lombard). Eric Mencher/Staff Photographer (ERIC MENCHER/Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 29, 2012

AH, IT SEEMS like only yesterday when every new place wanted to be known as a "gastropub." The recipe was simple, and a fine one: Take your basic bar — or pub or tavern, as the case may be — add a bevy of craft beer taps, and turn over the menu to a chef with a solid pedigree in high-end kitchens. The menu would have gussied-up burgers and grilled cheeses, some haute chicken wings, perhaps mussels or clams, and maybe some fancy mac 'n' cheese and something vaguely vegan beyond a salad or veggie burger. Standard Tap, Good Dog, Pub & Kitchen, Local 44 — all have been stellar examples of the genre for a long time.

Eventually, you started to see items such as fried chicken and bone marrow, pork belly and potato leek soup, flatbreads, Korean tacos and housemade sausages pop up on gastropub menus. Then stuff like cauliflower "steaks" and crudo and rabbit cheesesteaks started to appear.

Right about that time — for the sake of argument, let's say mid-2011 — something interesting started to happen. Suddenly the trendy chefs, restaurateurs, writers and scenesters seemed to be hating on the term gastropub.

I was surprised, for instance, when Lemon Hill opened in Fairmount last December, and one of its partners squirmed when I called his place a gastropub. "Please don't use that term," he said. I wrote "wtf?" in my notes next to that quote, because honestly: If Lemon Hill isn't a gastropub, then what is it?

In the same month, Philadelphia magazine published a list of "12 Restaurant Trends That Need To Die" in 2012. What was at No. 4, right below "Cupcakes"? Yep, gastropubs. As with anything else that grows popular and ubiquitous, the gastropub faced the inevitable backlash.

Now, I'll admit, I've never been a huge fan of the term gastropub. It's always seemed a bit gross, calling to mind things I don't want to think about when I'm eating — like gastroenterology, gastritis, gastrointestinal issues and the like.

But there are plenty of other words in the English language that I also find subpar. Just to pick one, I find it odd that dating 50-year-olds refer to one another as "my girlfriend" and "my boyfriend." But what other term of endearment are they going to call one another, the gag-inducing "my lover"? Likewise, I fear we'll abandon gastropub for an even worse description.

Yet while restaurateurs seem to be avoiding the word, they're certainly still taking many of their cues and influences from the gastropub concept. As I've eaten at a number of newer places this spring and early summer, I can see that we have moved into a period that might reasonably be called Post-Gastropub — an imperfect term in the same way that Post-Impressionism or Post-Modernism are imperfect terms.

As an example of Post-Gastropub, take a look at the new Rittenhouse Tavern, yet another restaurant in the Art Alliance space once occupied by Le Jardin and Opus 251. This space, with its lovely garden, is about as far from a "tavern" as you can possibly get. However, Chef Nicholas Elmi (formerly overseeing the demise of Georges Perrier's Le Bec-Fin) and "chef collaborator" Ed Brown's menu — deviled eggs with pork scrapple, portobello fries, mussels, crab cakes, the aforementioned cauliflower steak and crudo, and a "Sunday Fried Chicken Supper" — seems to take a page straight from the gastropub playbook. Even Rittenhouse Tavern's logo, a little bird in silhouette, seems like a whimsical take on gastropub iconography — similar to Pub & Kitchen's rabbit or any number of places around the country with pigs.

Same goes for the exciting new Vernick Food & Drink, which I like very much. It's the kind of place where you want to eat snacks at the attractive bar, especially on a summer night when they open the front window out onto Walnut Street. The crudo, in particular the Arctic char flecked with crispy skin and sprinkled with dill, and the sea urchin with scrambled eggs were outrageously good, as were toasts topped with morel mushrooms, peas and bacon, or charred spinach and leeks. If you're interested in a larger meal, the wood-oven-roasted organic chicken or the braised beef cheek are delicious — and very much standard gastropub fare.

Rittenhouse Tavern and Vernick, as well as Lemon Hill (which curiously also uses the tag "Food & Drink"), all break from the gastropub model in one significant spot: the drinks menu. No longer is the focus simply on craft beer. All have curated cocktail and wine lists, and you'll be just as likely to find people drinking rosé wines and Negronis as IPAs.

All of this is not to say that in our Post-Gastropub restaurant scene, there are not actual gastropubs still opening and thriving.

For instance, at The Boilermaker, the new venture by the owners of The Farmers' Cabinet, the drinks menu is based on the upscale shot-and-beer, a microtrend I wrote about last year for another newspaper ( washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/the-beer-back-a-step-forward/2011/08/09/gIQAb8cIJJ_story.html). You can pair, say, an Eagle Rare bourbon with your Neshaminy Creek Mudbank oatmeal stout, both for $9. But beyond that cutesy gimmick, the place is total gastropub.

I'm still on the fence about The Boilermaker. The duck sausage sandwich and the braised rabbit cheesesteak were worth returning for, but the oxtail toasts and the supposed-to-be-ironic hot dog with Cheez Whiz were uninspired, as was the roasted asparagus reuben that has replaced a delicious cauliflower reuben.

The Boilermaker's candlelit space is odd and labyrinthian, with a confusing tap system that has different beers upstairs and downstairs — and bartenders who didn't seem to know how to pour beer. It's also so dark that, coming in from street in the early evening, I ran into a post in the middle of a room before my eyes had adjusted. (No, I hadn't had anything to drink yet.)

These days, if you still enjoy a true gastropub, I think you probably have to get out of Center City. Which is why I've found myself in Pennsport recently, at new place called The Industry, created by the same team that owns one of my favorites, Good Dog.

The Industry's gimmick is that it's supposed to be for people who work in the restaurant business. The servers wear T-shirts that read "I don't work here" and ranty "bar rules" can be found on the menu and on coasters. "Bar Rule #23: Never start your order with ‘I know this is gonna be a pain, but …'"

I don't know what the percentage of restaurant workers is on a normal night (I did see my favorite bartender from Good Dog there once on a Wednesday). But it really doesn't matter. I liked the crispy pig ear lettuce wraps and the clams and sausage with tangy, fennel-lemon-white-ale broth. There was a chalkboard with drink specials. There was bone marrow on the menu, as well as a burger. And yes, there were chicken wings — in a sweet and spicy General Tso's sauce.

It's a gastropub. It doesn't matter what you do or don't want to call it.   

------- Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.

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