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The Perfect Pub

September 16, 2012

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(The photo above comes from an awesome article on the same topic. Click here if you’d like to read it. Note that it’s got a British slant to it. For my 2 cents on what makes a perfect pub here in the U.S., simply read below.)

Guinness smartly coined the slogan “the perfect pint.” It’s a brilliant marketing scheme, but while I will certainly admit to enjoying a nice cold serving of the Vitamin G from time to time, I’m not sure I would consider it to be anywhere close to my description of a perfect pint of beer… Saint Patrick’s day aside, of course. Don’t get me wrong, a perfectly poured pint of Guinness is a beautiful thing to behold! Picture it: dark and mysterious looking, a thick and creamy head that starts out tan but turns to ivory as the beer settles, little bubbles that fall downward, not upward, and with a skilled bartender pouring, maybe even a nice little shamrock design sitting atop that pillowy head. (Interested in why the bubbles go downward? Click here.)

In my opinion you’d be hard pressed to name a beer that looks as sexy as a properly poured Guinness; but looks are just one factor to consider when determining the “perfect beer.” And as for pubs –the topic of today’s blog– the same applies. Just like a great beer, a great pub can’t just look amazing, but also needs to deliver on things like atmosphere, beer selection, food quality, diversity of clientele, friendliness, knowledge of staff, and even smell (or more specifically, lack thereof). Like anything else, each person will assess and weigh the importance of these and other factors differently. Sometimes you’ll agree with your friends and sometimes you’ll appear to be the Russian judge who sees it all very differently. But if you’re picky and discerning like me, one thing is for certain no matter what your specific tastes happen to be: Perfection, if such a thing even exists, is elusive. When you come close to finding it, it’s a very special thing indeed!

This past week, travel for work (my non-beer gig that pays the bills) brought me through the lovely town of Buffalo, NY where I found one such place. With a few hours to kill and an empty belly, I logged onto Beer Advocate and started reading reviews of Buffalo’s top beer bars and brewpubs where I might be able to settle in for a few hours for a meal and couple of pints. (For a craft beer geek such as myself, I find Beer Advocate to be the closest approximation to the “American judge,” at least while stateside. As a quick word of caution, beer geeks are likely to find lots of “Russian judges” on websites like Yelp, where the general public seems to value stuff like number of televisions quite a bit more than the beer list.) The winner? The Blue Monk on Elmwood Ave., a gorgeous bistro-style “gastropub” (I know, that term is way overused) with rustic hardwood floors, a gorgeous patio, chalk board displaying its constantly rotating 26 taps (mostly Belgian) and a just-the-right-size crowd for a Tuesday evening in September.

To me, the Blue Monk was as close to my definition of a “perfect pub” as I’ve come across in a while. The clientele was diverse (all ages, a mix of attractive and ugly, almost no “douches,” and multiple colors…because there’s nothing worse than an all-whiteboy frat party), the interior was dark and cozy without feeling claustrophobic, the patio was open and airy, and they had an awesome beer list that complimented an eclectic, yet familiar feeling, food menu. The place was clean, but not overly so (because a bleach-smelling, overly hygienic pub can feel just as awful as one that smells like piss or vomit) and the staff and clientele were all friendly. Again, this is my version of a perfect place, but I’d like to think that even a pizza-and-wings-light-beer-loving-NASCAR-fan would feel comfortable in this place and find something redeeming about it. It was clean, smart and classy without feeling pretentious or elite. And while I may have rolled my eyes at the guy who wanted his pumpkin beer mixed with German lager, the bartender, to his credit, happily obliged.

If you’re like me and you enjoy a nice pub that matches much of the description above, here’s a list of some of my favorite U.S. craft beer bars. (I’m saving foreign bars for a future blog as they’re an entirely different animal.) Disclaimer: I’ve only been to about half of the states in the U.S., so this is not meant as anything other than a list of my personal favorites so far. Most notably, I’ve not been to Seattle, WA or Portland, OR, two of this country’s great beer cities. Clearly, there are a lot of great places left for me to discover. So forgive me if an obvious favorite is missing from my list; but more importantly, tell me about what I’m missing so I can visit someday!

  • Blue Monk in Buffalo, NY. Discussed in detail above, the only thing I’ll add is a strong recommendation for the duck-fat-fried french fries!
  • The Ginger Man in Norwalk, CT. During my almost 5 years living in Norwalk, this place was my local. Even without the monthly five-course beer dinners, this place is awesome. I’ve yet to encounter another bar with over 50 taps where almost none of the lines are “throw-aways.” The copper-backed bar, leather sofas and outdoor patio are nothing to sneeze at either!
  • Novare Res in Portland, ME. No food at this place, but one of the best draft and bottle lists I’ve ever seen. Plus, the outdoor biergarten, tucked away but still in the middle of town, is a haven for great beer and good conversation. The biergarten is even dog friendly!
  • Armsby Abbey in Worcester, MA. An amazing beer list and atmosphere or else it wouldn’t be on this list, but food-wise it may be the strongest contender on here. Check it out if you ever pass through “Wuss-ter.”
  • The Publick House in Boston, MA. This was my favorite place while I was living in Boston. There can sometimes be an air of pretension in here, but the food, drinks and atmosphere are hard to beat.
  • Portsmouth Brewery in Portsmouth, NH. Totally unpretentious. Only three words you need to know: Spicy Curry Mussels.
  • Toronado in San Francisco, CA. Not tornado, Toronado. Also no food here. A little on the grungier side of things, but with the hard rock/metal playing in the background, it works. Plus, they almost always have Pliny The Elder on tap.
  • Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia, PA. This place is a legend in the beer world in one of the country’s greatest beer cities. It also happens to be one of the few places on the east coast that has a Russian River hook-up.
  • Memphis Taproom in Philadelphia, PA. This place is on the outskirts of the city, so it’s an easy on/off if you are passing through. All the food is great, but for something a little different try the smoked coconut club.
  • Gramercy Tavern in New York City, NY. This is probably the most upscale place on this list and is much more of a restaurant than a pub. But, you can have a great meal, relatively inexpensively, in the tavern room. Plus, they have an amazing bottle list, including some cellared beers. NYC is home to lots of great pubs so it’s difficult to not pick a dozen places from this city alone. If you’re planning to be in NYC, a great website to visit to get the lowdown on all the good spots is called The Good Beer Seal. You can’t go wrong if you use this site to plan your trip.
  • Draught House in Austin, TX. Once again, an awesome place in a city of lots of awesome places. The Draught House also brews their own stuff. The outdoor biergarten is dog friendly and you can even tailgate in the parking lot!
  • Wolff’s Biergarten in Albany, NY. Not the most impressive beer selection on this list, I won’t lie… But the atmosphere more than makes up for it! Eat as many peanuts as you like, have a draft Weinstephaner or German beer of your choosing, and enjoy the incredible atmosphere of this indoor/outdoor adaptation of a German biergarten
  • Meridian Pint in Washington, DC. My favorite place in my new city. This place has great food and focuses on local beer, of which there is surprisingly good selection available. Downstairs you’ll find tables with their own tap handles that can be reserved. These guys also own a sister pub called Smoke & Barrel that focuses a bit more on BBQ and Bourbon, but also keeps an equally awesome beer list.

    There are probably places I’ve overlooked, so I may update this post if I think of others. There are also great places that are well-known that I’ve purposefully left off this list for various reasons. On one end of the spectrum, I chose to leave off a very well-known beer bar in Albany, NY called Mahar’s. This place has awesome beer and is usually filled with a great local crowd, but because it’s a bit too grungy for my liking (no glasses coming out of their mildew-encased dishwasher could possibly respect the quality of the beer, in my opinion), I chose to leave it off. On the other end of the spectrum, a great and well known DC beer bar called “Churchkey” was left off because I can’t quite justify paying close to $10 for a 4 oz. taster of beer, no matter how rare or delicious it happens to be. Plus, although delicious, there is something a little too metrosexual about overpriced sweet potato tater-tots for my liking. I do enjoy both of these places quite a lot and will go back to both in a heartbeat, but there are slight flaws in each that render them too far from perfect to make my list.

    Finding the perfect pub is a tough job, but it’s something I’m willing to keep looking for!

    Until next time, cheers and happy doubting.

    ~BLA

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