by Jack Curtin
Atlantic Ale Trail
October/November 2006

When we got the word that we were doing a Top Ten Beer & Food Destinations thing this issue, along with a request for staff suggestions, I was chagrined to realize how few dining adventures I've had away from the friendly confines of my home territory. That means I had minimal input to the story you've probably already read up in the front pages (hey, it's better than last time, the Top Ten Beer Cities story, in which I had no input, due to an email mix-up). To compensate, I'm going local and offering a Philadelphia region Top Ten Beer & Food list here, split into city and suburbs.

Philadelphia: It's a no-brainer that Monk's is number one; I'd assume it is near or at the top of the list upfront. It is, quite simply, one of the nation's two or three best beer bars and boasts an intriguing menu featuring true biere de cuisine. Standard Tap has that "all local beers only on draught" thing going for it, which is neat, but this is a very fine place to dine as well. Their Sunday brunch is one of my favorite excursions these days. Brigid's (215.232.3232), an often overlooked corner spot in the Art Museum neighborhood, was the city's first Belgian bar (before there were such things) and it still has some of the best, least expensive good food in town, along with an excellent beer list. Consider their working fireplace and unique "downdraft" cask system and you may wonder why they're not number one. Tria is more a spot for noshing than full-out dining, but the idea of celebrating "the fermentation trio of wine, beer and cheese" is way cool and the beer list, while small, is very intelligent and well conceived. McMenamin's Tavern (215.247.9920) is off the beaten track a bit in the Chestnut Hill section and is therefore something of an "undiscovered treasure." An excellent menu has been developed in recent years and the taps always seem to offer at least one great brew nobody else is currently pouring. Finally, The Abbaye (215.940.1222), right around the corner from Standard Tap, is one of the city's more attractive beer bars, with great ambiance to match excellent food and thoughtful beer offerings.

Suburbs: If this were purely a dining list, The Farmhouse in Emmaus would win hands down. This is a superb restaurant at all levels, with a beer list second to very few, topped off by its exquisite selection of vintage bottles. Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, with locations in West Chester, Media, Phoenixville and North Wales, is a suburban dining list all by itself. That thing about how a brewpub needs great food to go with great beer? These guys had it figured out from the git-go. Drafting Room Exton won by a large margin when I got involved in an online discussion recently about what would be the one bar you'd send an out-of-towner to if he wanted to taste a wide selection of American craft beers on draught. There's also a second Drafting Room in Spring House, and the food is as good as the beer at both. Isaac Newton's, north of the city in Newtown, is one of those slightly-off-the-radar "oh yeah!" places which is immediately the subject of effusive raves when somebody remembers during a "where shall we eat and drink?" discussion. Works for me.

Everything old is new again.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Dock Street Brewery & Restaurant was the shining star of Philadelphia craft brewing. With a big, beautiful pub in a great center city location and a brewhouse that turned out a vast array of really fine beers, Dock Street was a harbinger of better times to come through the early '90s. Then everything went all to hell when founders Jeff Ware and Rosemarie Certo sold the place to investors who promptly got themselves involved in the hell-bent for disaster maneuvering that marked the crash and burn of Red Bell, Independence and Poor Henry's, Philadelphia brewing's Trio of Doom in the latter half of the decade. At one point early this century, there were four locales bearing the Dock Street name before bankruptcy courts mercifully put an end to it all. Ware and Certo reclaimed the brand and in recent years she's been heading up a contract brewing operation using the name (which is how Dock Street started out, way back in 1987).

Now, if things go right, Dock Street could once again become a destination spot for local beer aficionados. Certo says that a former firehouse at 50th & Baltimore, just off the University of Pennsylvania campus, will be home to a new Dock Street, where a 15bbl brewhouse will turn out draft beers for its own taps and accounts in the city and suburbs. The restaurant part of the operation will be wood-burning oven pizza restaurant. Dock Street Amber Beer and Dock Street Bohemian Pilsner will continue to be contract brewed and bottled at F. X. Matt in New York, as they have been throughout the brewery's existence.

Can they pull this off? I like to think so, although some overly optimistic projections have made me nervous: Certo told the Philadelphia Inquirer that zoning approvals, construction, the hiring of a brewer and the purchase and installation of a brewhouse would all be completed "in three months" at one point, creating a scary déjà vu of the days when Jim Bell was promising a new Red Bell pub on every corner almost weekly. On the other hand, she's got one thing exactly right. "Our biggest challenge," she says, "will be finding a brewer who is in tune with what it is that we want to do. a lot of what we were doing back then was seen as crazy. Now it's what everybody is doing. We'll just have to reinvent ourselves and start getting a bit crazy again. We're lucky in that there are a lot more brewers around today than there were 15 years ago--we trained a lot of them, in fact. We've stayed in touch with the beer community, we have a list and we've started talking to people."

A new Dock Street in West Philadelphia (I love the location) and, when it finally opens, a new Triumph brewpub in the Olde City section will help rectify this great beer city's signal weakness, a mere three brewpubs within city limits: Nodding Head, Independence and Manayunk.

Local breweries ride the wave.
The welcome and continuing growth of the craft beer segment has been strongly felt locally. Victory Brewing added eight new 200bbl fermenters in June; Troegs (which seems to have taps everywhere these days) installed two new 120bbl fermenters at the end of August; emerging Sly Fox moved into the Harrisburg and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, opened New Jersey and New York and is adding two new bright tanks, and Weyerbacher Brewing, after staging something of a comeback with beer geekdom in 2005 with its barrel-aged beers, has reformulated its Hops Infusion IPA and introduced Double Simcoe IPA in 2006 to keep that crowd in a frenzy.

For Philadelphia's sole full production brewery, Yards, things are in a bit of turmoil, however. When Edward I. Friedland, the city's primary micro and Belgian/other high end imports distributor, was purchased by suburban Kunda Beverage this spring, Yards declined to shift its brand over. Well, we all know how those distributing agreements try to preclude that sort of thing, don't we? Yards is currently self-distributing and the whole mess is in court. At this issue's deadline, Yards apparently has won the first round as an injunction to stop their self-distribution was denied. What will happen next is anybody's guess. I am not sanguine.

Meanwhile, down in Slower Delaware at Dogfish Head, where they're in the process of installing a new 100bbl brewhouse, word comes that, on a recent weekend, magical Sam Calagione walked on the ocean to the delight of a horde of Beer Advocates and then somehow fed the masses using only ten loaves and fishes.

Wait a minute. I made that last part up.

I think.

Copyright (c) 2006 Jack Curtin

Return to Archive Listing