September 17, 2019 § 1 Comment
In 2016 I was winding down Man Voyage IV with my best pal and Echo & Sway comrade, Jared A. Conti AKA The Oracular Beard in the upper reaches of New York’s Finger Lakes. We were chatting at length on the last stop of our three day beer & brewery pilgrimage with a knowledgeable server at Genesee’s Thirsty Pug Craft Beer Market when he wholeheartedly recommended, nay commanded us where to go next: Vermont.
His claims that Vermont breweries were churning out some of the best beers in the country weren’t entirely unfamiliar to us. Any craft beer drinker worth his/her weight in IBUs knows The Alchemist Brewery’s Heady Topper is one of the most highly rated & sought after IPAs on the market, and it more than lived up to the hype when a friend gifted us a few cans years ago. My wife & I received a case of assorted bombers from Rock Art, McNeill’s and others as a wedding present from a Brattleboro-based friend, and Hill Farmstead’s unpasteurized farmhouse ales are the only exceptions from the “drink local” rule we adhere to during our visits to Philadelphia. As I reflected on all of this, I began to wonder why we hadn’t made this trip sooner.
Initial Google searches pointed us toward Burlington, Stowe and more northern locations. We were hoping to stay central & southern due to time constraints so as always, we dug deeper to find some gems that haven’t yet been touted by the national beer press and looked forward to the journey as much as the destination. And journey we did: the past few years we’ve combined Man Voyage with some Echo & Sway tour dates, losing travel & leisure time to radio interviews, promotional efforts, load ins & soundchecks, etc. For the first time in years, we were getting back to basics: eating, drinking and combing America’s highways & backroads at our own pace.
I recall a time, maybe a decade ago when we had visited most of the breweries & brewpubs in Pennsylvania, save for the bigger cities. My wife & I would open the latest Ale Street News to the map page, cross off the newer ones as we made our monthly treks and it seemed fairly manageable. Now there are over 300 scattered throughout the rural parts of the state and in trying to find somewhere new on our way out of northeastern PA, we had nearly half a dozen to choose from. We went with Nimble Hill Winery & Brewery in Tunkhannock because, well, they were the only place that was open at 11:00 on a Tuesday morning.
That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our visit. Options may have been scarce but Nimble Hill made for a fine first stop: not so exceptional that it wrecked the curve but good enough to whet our appetites for the long day ahead of us. Located unassumingly off of Rt. 6 N it couldn’t have been easier to find. It doesn’t look like much from the outside; like a consignment shop or antique barn but it opens up into a beautiful wood-lined tasting room with matching bars & wine racks, and a corridor that wraps around to a smaller room with nearly a dozen beers on tap. We each built our own 4-beer sampler, with a nice mix of IPAs, porters, Belgians and sours. Considering the brewery aspect of the business is relatively new, there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch and a few – particularly the Midnight Fuggle (robust porter) and Oud Bruin (brown sour) – were even great.
The woman behind the bar sensed our need for manly reflection and gave us our space to chat, but checked in periodically while tending to both spaces. The decor isn’t exactly our taste (generic beer themed signage in that “Live, Laugh, Love” style) but it’s got a welcoming vibe and some solid brews. The free popcorn was a nice bonus. We packed up a few singles to go and continued east.
With a 7+ hour drive to reach our evening’s destination we relied a bit more on major highways than we would have liked, but we cranked up the tunes and let the miles fly. We’re generally forward thinking dudes so when we reminisce, it’s for good reason and there’s none better than Cartoon. An area staple since the early 1980’s, the folk & bluegrass quartet featured Jared’s uncle on bass, vocals, & songwriting duties. Performances at State College’s Central PA Festival of the Arts served as an annual reunion of sorts for their family, and were the catalyst for Jared’s interest in forming our musical partnership. I’d heard a few songs here & there over the years but strangely we’d never played an album start to finish… with nothing but uninspiring stretches of highway laid out before us, it was the perfect day to listen to several.
We made our way to Clemson Bros Brewery in Middletown, NY for a quick lunch bite. Housed in a beautifully restored factory building from the 1800’s (where family descendants made hacksaw blades), it looks to be the cornerstone of a neighborhood in transition, like so many breweries in small American towns. Middletown doesn’t look particularly rough but a bit sparse, and the Clemson building really stands out. Just inside you’re greeted by brewery tanks and brick-walled surrounds in a decent sized barroom that gives way to a long dining hall with pew seating and chandeliers (brewpub staple: classic rock on the sound system? Check). I’d read good things about the parmesan truffle fries, and those sentiments were echoed by two locals at the bar: they talked us into ordering a large platter with our two pints, and we carried it all outside.
The fenced in beer garden behind the building is stunning with a newly installed full bar, picnic tables, string lights, clinging vines climbing brick walls and overhead industrial piping running through an old rope & pulley system, likely remnants of the building’s factory days. A fresh rain shower kept everything nice and damp, so we had it all to ourselves. The fries were delicious as suggested, and we took a crowler of session IPA to go. A delightful if lonesome Tuesday lunch visit; it’d be nice to see that outdoor space alive & hopping.
We stopped for gas on the way out of Middletown and happened upon the New York, Ontario & Western Railway Company train station, built in the late 1800’s but gutted by fire & closed for good in 2004. The shell of the former O&W hub is a sad & beautiful landmark in a Richardsonian Romanesque style (thank you, Wikipedia), befitting a listing on Atlas Obscura. We walked the perimeter but thought better of jumping the fence to better explore the inside; Man Voyage has not included any arrests to date and we wanted to keep it that way. There are some fantastic photos on I Ride the Harlem Line.
More major highways brought us to New Britain, CT where the relatively new Five Churches Brewing offered us a chance to get in on the ground floor, so to speak. Named for its location between the steeples of five churches, it’s an open second floor space with light pouring in from large factory windows and a panoramic view of downtown. If you’re going to limit your menu to one item, wood-fired pizza is probably the best choice and theirs is stellar. We ordered the daily special (poutine pie: gravy, mozzarella & tater tots) and took a few pints outside.
It’s definitely a rough neighborhood. The first thing we saw while exiting our vehicle was a dude pissing in a trash filled alley. From the balcony we also had a prime view of some shady dealings involving a decrepit apartment building and several cars with tinted windows. Breweries & brewpubs can do so much to revitalize areas by adding jobs and stimulating the local economy. It’s encouraging to see them set up shop in communities like this that can truly benefit, and I hope the change is exponentially positive for everyone.
We contemplated a few rounds of Guardians of the Galaxy pinball or squeezing into the photo booth for some Man Voyage commemoratives but pressed on, happy knowing that we’d strictly adhered to Commandment #5 posted in the stairwell: Thou shalt absolutely enjoy your time with us here at Five Churches. Enjoy our time we did. The ESB and IPA were both tasty, and I’m sure the quality will only improve as the brewery gains traction. The pizza couldn’t get any better.
It was getting dark by the time we reached Greenfield, MA so I can really say nothing of the town except parking was easy & convenient, in a bank lot after hours. I can, however, say many positive things about our experience at The People’s Pint brewpub on Federal Street. Admittedly I was sold on the place upon learning my late hero Anthony Bourdain had once dined there with his crew off-camera; I’m not sure what circumstances led to that but I can see why he would’ve appreciated the place. It was lively for a Tuesday evening, but not obnoxiously loud… dim, but Jared could still read his beer menu (scroll down to our 2018 afternoon at Ann Arbor’s Jolly Pumpkin brewery for the scoop on that)… locally focused, but very welcoming to visitors. There are an abundance of bicycle parts adorning the walls, seemingly random until we learned that partial proceeds of certain beers benefit a local bike shop & association. We knew it the moment we sat down: if we lived here, this is where we’d spend our evenings.
The People’s Pilsner and Training Wheels session IPA were fresh, quaffable brews, served up in moments despite the crowd our waitress had to wade through. Our food was served up equally fast: pulled pork tacos with cilantro cream sauce, and whatever Jared got. I can’t remember because the tacos were so fucking good I was temporarily unable to focus on anything else. Quite possibly my favorite meal of the trip. I think Jared got some sort of Szechuan noodle bowl and the few bites he shared were good, but those tacos were so fucking great they warrant multiple fucks. We enjoyed it all to the sounds of Dinosaur Jr., Guided by Voices, Fugazi and more good stuff over the sound system. We felt embraced as we do at our own Broken Axe Brew House back home; The People’s Pint is truly the perfect name for this place. If you’re anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic/New England regions, find time to visit. And order the fucking tacos.
I don’t feel as though we can properly judge Whetstone Station Restaurant & Brewery in Brattleboro. Much of the appeal is the second story deck complete with outdoor bar & fire pits that overlooks the Connecticut River, and it was too dark to enjoy the waterfront view by the time we arrived. The bartender grumbled when we took more than 20 seconds to peruse the draft menu, trying to choose one of their four house beers among the other dozen guest taps. Maybe there were more of their own inside but one would think they’d be available in the extremely expensive looking outdoor space that’s clearly the focal point of the restaurant. The Penguin Porter and, um, whatever Jared got were okay. We didn’t order any food for fear of further upsetting the bartender by needing two minutes to look at a menu. Again, it feels wrong to judge too harshly considering we technically didn’t even set foot inside but the vibe was a bit pretentious and a real letdown after our wonderful experience at the People’s Pint.
A friend of mine who once lived in Brattleboro raved about McNeill’s Brewery, describing it as “random,” “unorganized” and “strange” but also “one of the best breweries I’ve ever been to.” If that weren’t enough of an endorsement, he gifted my wife & I a few of their beers for our wedding, and their oatmeal stout remains one of the best I’ve ever had in the style. I’d been looking forward to it all day, and it did not disappoint in the least.
Anyone I’ve ever talked beers & brewpubs with knows that my favorite bar in all the world is the Wharf Rat in Baltimore. It’s a divey, kitschy British pub full of old sailor relics, whose patrons don’t fit in at any of the trendy, touristy spots in Fells Point. I once asked the bartender what time they opened in the morning. She stared at me blankly for a minute before muttering “Whatever time all the old Navy guys line up outside to drink beer and watch the Price is Right.” I immediately made it clear to my wife that this is now my retirement plan: TPIR over lunch beers at the Wharf Rat, Monday through Friday. Rerun days included.
McNeill’s is Brattleboro’s Wharf Rat counterpart. These are my favorite types of bars: dark & quirky but 100% authentic, with no apologies or attempts to be something they’re not. Don’t like what they have to offer? Move along. We sat for a few minutes before the bartender emerged from outside: she’d been one of half a dozen people smoking in front of the place. She hooked us up with a couple of beers and again, I paid no attention to what Jared ordered once I spotted a proper British ESB on cask. When done right it’s my favorite style: easy drinking, low ABV% and perfect balance of malt & hop bitterness. The Oliver’s ESB at the Wharf Rat is in my top three all time favorite beers and from the moment we set foot inside McNeill’s I had a feeling they would do the style justice. They did. I could’ve sucked back three or four of them easily.
The clientele was equally charming: mostly McNeill’s staff settling in for post-shift drinks with friends who came to meet them. One girl had sliced open her thumb doing prep work in the kitchen, and fixed up a makeshift bandage at the bar while shooting tequila, a Guatemalan fella detailed the foibles of his love life in broken English while the bartender poured herself a drink for each one she served. The entire room emptied onto the sidewalk outside to smoke at least three times in the 45 minutes we were there while shouting back at us to “not steal anything” and instead of simply putting an out of order sign on a disabled urinal in the men’s room, they chose to write “STOP: don’t pee, you will die.” We spotted a cabinet with a dirty sheet tacked to the front where the door should be, covering a small drum kit. When Jared asked what type of music they typically booked someone answered “Uh, I dunno. Whatever.” The Beastie Boys played over the sound system all the while. There was no better place to end our night.
We retired to our evening’s digs, The Colonial Motel just a few miles up the road. Cheap, no frills, park-outside-of-your-room accommodations with two comfortable beds and a shower. We didn’t even turn on the TV. Lights out.
After a fantastic night’s sleep and full, hot breakfast we wandered downtown in search of coffee and followed some locals into Mocha Joe’s on the main drag. Admittedly it’s a generic name but we could hear Tom Waits’ “Bad as Me” playing from outside, and by the time we ordered our espressos and coffee from the barista wearing the same Descendents t-shirt I had on, we were tapping our feet to Charlie Feathers’ “Can’t Hardly Stand It.” Posters of jazz musicians line the walls and there are stacks of art & music publications everywhere to leaf through. It’s an aging hipster’s paradise. Coffee is damn good too.
We poked around town a bit, bought some books & political buttons for the revolution to give to our kids and stocked up on Vermont microbrews at the Brattleboro Food Co-op for our wives before walking back to catch the waterfront view we’d missed the night before. It is indeed gorgeous, with a stream cascading through a lock that runs underneath the main street into the river. We followed some worn looking railroad tracks a short distance to a cove of graffiti covered rocks descending to the water. It was the perfect place to enjoy some relaxing quiet time before spending the rest of the day on the road.
If you’d told me while I was looking at stops for this trip that Long Trail Brewing Company would be one of our favorites, I’d have laughed at you. Their beer has been available in PA for years and it’s never been terrible, but not particularly noteworthy either. I wouldn’t have even considered it but I read so many positive things, and it was on our way up north.
At long last, we traded the highway for some scenic back roads. The weather was perfect for a rural drive out to Bridgewater Corners, an absurdly adorable name for a town if I’ve ever heard one, like the fictional small town in a sitcom like Little House on the Prairie. Long Trail is a large, beautiful space with an outdoor beer garden, lawn games, fire pits and small walking trail that leads down to the Ottauquechee River. They’ve obviously got big money for the type of renovations and distribution they boast but somehow it feels like a smaller & more intimate place. We sat outside on the deck overlooking the river, and each ordered up our own 4-beer sampler, both heavy on the brewery exclusive options. Everything was fresh & tasty, and even the beers we’d previously not overly enjoyed in bottles were fantastic on tap.
My fish tacos with mango chipotle slaw & green chile sour cream were great but for the first time on this trip I was envious of Jared’s food: a shaved pork loin sandwich with maple beer mustard & a CBD infused house sauce. They’re two of the best condiments we’ve ever tasted, and Jared paid extra to have some of each packed into small containers to go. I’d have bought a gallon of each if I could’ve. Long Trail was a pleasant surprise that completely subverted our expectations. There’s a summer music series on the patio and as our criteria for most gig applications is based on food & drink, it’s likely The Echo & Sway will be throwing our hat into the ring one of these years.
We headed north, relieved to still be on the types of roads where a 30 mile journey would take us 50 minutes. We were greeted in the Drop In Brewing parking lot by a dog who sat briefly at our feet then headed inside, turning his head back to see if we were following him. It was either a total coincidence or they have this dog very well trained. It’s a small space with a few couches, two or three tables and a wraparound bar. Countless bottles & growlers from New England breweries line a set of shelves that run nearly the length of the room, and the brewer’s excellent taste in music is on full display throughout with concert posters of the Ramones, Clash, Frank Turner, Alvvays and more.
The dog directed us to two seats at the bar (that may not have happened) where the bartender handed us a binder with the day’s offerings. I went festive for Christmas in July with a Christmas Cake ale. So many holiday beers are thin bodied spice bombs but theirs is a tasty dark brown ale brewed with raisins, currants, almond essence and some other things that keep it from tasting like a light beer with a cinnamon stick in it. The bartender & bookkeeper chatted us up about Vermont breweries while I strummed a Stratocaster propped up in a corner near the front picture window (it’s always awesome when a brewery offers live music but I have no idea how they’d host a decent crowd with their size & layout… maybe we’ll have to try and organize a long weekend with a gig at Long Trail to find out).
They have a small cooler with a build-your-own mix ‘n match, and they discounted one of my cans because the label had been manually applied slightly crooked during a labeling machine malfunction. Totally unnecessary but much appreciated. Solid brews, friendly staff and a fun atmosphere… so glad we dropped in (their name appears to be a nod to the start of a snowboarding run but it works well for dad jokes too).
It seemed like most of these places were in the middle of nowhere but Foley Brothers Brewing truly felt secluded. A few miles and some twists & turns off of Rt. 7 brought us to a cozy tasting room in an old barn next to a farmhouse B&B. Vines climb damn near every tree, post & vertical service (even the outhouse), there’s a gorgeous garden area with lawn games and a decorative arbor that overlooks the back of a golf course. The whole property is stunning.
We ran through everything on tap with a combination of two 5-beer samplers, poured one at a time to leave room for a little discussion. There was a heavy focus on single hop IPAs, a delicious oatmeal stout and my favorite of the bunch, the Earl Pale Ale brewed with black tea. I’m generally not a tea guy but it turns out it’s fantastic when brewed into beer. We took our last samples out to the garden and relaxed in a few lawn chairs; this view even makes the golf course look pretty. We snagged a few 4-packs of pounder cans and continued south. I would definitely look into staying at the B&B sometime in the future. I can’t imagine anywhere more beautiful to wake up, and the oatmeal stout would make a damn fine breakfast beer.
We made one last stop en route to our AirBNB at Madison Brewing Company in Bennington. We hadn’t eaten since Long Trail (admittedly only because neither of the two stops that followed offered food) and in trying to pace ourselves with take home purchases, we realized we hadn’t picked up much at all. Madison looks nice, if a bit ordinary at first glance with wooden floors, brick walls & bay windows, and the classic rock playing didn’t do much to distinguish it but it’s got it where it counts. The Old 76 English Strong Ale and Ju-C double dry hopped IPA are both exceptional. At this point in the day all we wanted was some good ol’ bar food and the No Bones About It chicken strips drenched in melted cheese & maple chipotle BBQ hit the spot. It took less than ten minutes of driving for us to regret only buying one four pack of the Ju-C. For the second time that day our expectations were completely distorted. The lesson? Don’t judge a beer by its label.
Man, were we on a roll. The only thing that could quell a damn near perfect day was a lousy AirBNB experience and really, how bad could a crash pad above a nano brewery be?
Yet another drive to the middle of nowhere on what have to be some of the loveliest back roads this region has to offer brought us to the Beer Diviner in Petersburg, NY just as the sun was setting. Perhaps it’s a different situation during weekend hours when the brewery is open but stepping out of Jared’s vehicle this peaceful Wednesday evening, all we could hear were crickets and a babbling brook in the woods interspersed with the clanking of brewery equipment inside. Wednesday is brewing night and after getting us settled into the space upstairs, proprietor John invited us inside for a few complimentary pints and glimpse into his brewing process.
John is a laid back fella, and we enjoyed sharing a few beers with him over discussion of our travels, and how he earned his name: during a stay in a small African village years ago, he was tapped (pun absolutely intended) by natives to figure out how to brew beer for everyone. Once successful, they dubbed him the Beer Diviner. You could hear the pride in his voice, and listening to him tell this story is one of my fondest memories of this trip. We retreated upstairs after a few tasty pints (Belgian dubbel and IPA), left a window open to take in the night air & sounds of the surrounding woods and drifted off to a playlist of Tom Waits ballads.
The only downside to being this far out in the boonies was a lack of breakfast options. We made an impromptu dash to Albany after a quick Google search produced an enticing looking brunch at the Iron Gate Cafe. In one of our finer moments we drove right past the “Valet Only” sign in the garage and parked ourselves. The attendant was fairly annoyed when we confessed though changed his tune when we overtipped him to compensate for our stupidity.
We walked through an iron gate (imagine that) into a beautifully landscaped garden with a brick pathway and overhead string lights. It’s 20 feet from bustling Washington Ave but feels a world away. The Morning Madras mimosa (cranberry & orange) is a fruitier cocktail than I’d typically order but what the hell, it was early. Jared’s a Bloody Mary guy, and his Bayou Bloody came with a big ass shrimp. We both ordered french toast stuffed with an absurd amount of Vermont maple sausage, eggs & cheese with homefries, on our waitress’ recommendation. She said it was a lot of food and she wasn’t kidding. We were, fittingly, stuffed. I went to check out the inside and saw three different Iron Gate t-shirt designs based on Ramones album covers. Pretty great for a spur of the moment find.
Sloop Brewing has two locations: a former IBM factory in East Fishkill NY, and the weathered post & beam barn on an apple orchard we visited in Elizaville. Another welcome country drive to the back of beyond, and another farm brewery with a fantastic view for miles. We arrived not long after opening and it was quiet, with only one other person at the bar. There were maybe 10 beers on tap, many of them different variations of the hazy NE IPA. We would’ve preferred a bit more diversity but the few we sampled were delicious. Jared partook of their two sours; not my favorite style but the red sangria was decent (as with wine, I preferred it to the white). The bartender was a bit temperate but it was early and he looked pretty focused. This location’s only food option (aside from chips & a few other bagged munchies) is hot dogs and if we hadn’t just eaten enough food to last us two days I may have gotten one. The artwork for their beer releases is striking, and displayed on posters throughout the barn. In keeping with the dad jokes… I’d sail on this Sloop again anytime.
Less than a mile from the PA border, Port Jervis NY is not a town I would’ve guessed to have a brewpub as terrific as Fox N Hare. Perhaps I’d never been to downtown proper but in the few times we’ve passed through for gas it didn’t seem like much more than a stopover town. Now I know better. Fox N Hare is stunning from the moment you walk in: plenty of places have their brewing tanks & equipment in full view somewhere, but theirs is in a pit with a birds eye view just inside the door. The layout of the restaurant is equally unique, situated in a U-shape around a long, narrow bar in the center, all brick & iron with industrial piping overhead. Their full bar has a great selection of bourbon & whiskey; too bad I was driving.
We were told to seat ourselves and chose a table right next to the open garage door window. We made it through half of our beers (Primitive Pilsner and Hop Forward IPA) before the sun baked us enough to convince us we should move to the bar. The menu has some innovative sounding dishes and I’d read rave reviews about the buffalo brussel sprouts but we were still full after our massive breakfast. We settled for sharing a Blackberry Blossom sour before hitting a comic book shop nearby on our way out of town. Yet another bright spot; Fox N Hare is a gem. We’ll be sure to return, hungry next time.
We hadn’t planned on stopping again but not long after leaving Port Jervis we began to get hungry. During Man Voyage II in 2014 we had a few interesting experimental beers and the absolute best IPA of that trip at Breaker Brewing in Wilkes-Barre, and conveniently we were cruising that way on 81-S around the time food started to feel like a possibility. Breaker is situated on a hill in a residential neighborhood, in a renovated old schoolhouse. It’s grown a bit since our last visit; we arrived early in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday, got the last parking spot and table inside.
All that was left of the several unconventional beers we had last time was a blackberry jalapeno ale, which we put in a sampler with a few IPAs, a pilsner and porter. The pilsner was solid and everything else was good but nothing jumped out at us nearly as much as the Mosaic Hop IPA did five years ago. The food was bangin’ though, especially Jared’s buffalo chicken balls. We didn’t stick around long; maybe brewpub fatigue was setting in, or we were just anxious to get home and see our families a bit before work/reality bit us in our asses the following morning. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed the place but had maybe invested too much hope in having that Mosaic again. Still a worthy visit.
We missed the shows, and even all of the pain in the ass promo work that goes with them but were happy to revisit the reasons we started taking this trip in the first place. It’s more relevant now than ever with our political climate the way it is: living in this country sucks sometimes, but watching it go by in a blur out of the car windows while stopping periodically to patronize the hardworking, innovative culinary institutions that represent its heart & soul with one of my best pals make me proud to be here, and reflect on the good things in life. Returning home with a case’s worth of various New England beers didn’t hurt either.
October 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
August marked year five of Man Voyage, my annual male bonding trip & tour with my best pal and Echo & Sway comrade Jared A. Conti. The MV intro has been done to death and I’ve nothing new to add so you can read the full mission statement here if you’re so inclined (the gist: we drive, talk, eat & drink). With the shit show that is our current political climate, we decided to get the hell out of Trump country for a few days and hightail it to Ontario where, if our previous visits have been any indication, we’d be in for a refreshing and much more tolerant change of pace. We struck gold.
Man Voyage rule #2 requires a heavier use of back roads over major highways, and we started our day with a beautiful drive up through rural Pennsylvania and New York, twisting & turning our way through glorious stretches of landscape that would make Ansel Adams blush. Interspersed with melancholic little ghost towns and the eccentric characters who occupy them, it’s poetry in motion: one minute you’re coasting by endless fields of sunflowers, the next you’re admiring a woman walking her dog in nothing but her underwear and a thick winter coat before entering a sleepy tourist town full of chalets, anxious for the ski season to start. The highways are faster but not even half as interesting.
We met our friend, alt-rocker James Martin at Big Ditch Brewing in Buffalo for a quick lunch before crossing the border. It’s a relatively new brewpub, and looks to be a cornerstone for a neighborhood in resurgence. You can see a ton of potential in the empty warehouses lining the surrounding blocks. We lucked into street parking half a block away and immediately spied the brewery’s garage-style doors that opened into a sidewalk patio; we liked the place already. Service was a tad slow for a Thursday afternoon but we probably wouldn’t have even noticed if we weren’t worried about a potential holdup at the border.
I always appreciate a brewpub that offers a smaller size option, for times like these when I wanted to try a few different beers but didn’t want to commit to a whole sampler in case again, potential border holdup. We shared a handful of 5oz pours including some signatures (Hayburner IPA, Excavator rye brown) and seasonals (Squeezer dry-hopped sour kolsch, FC session wheat IPA and Cinnamon Apple amber) with not a bad one in the bunch, and the FC was exceptional. I kept it light with a turkey club while Jared went whole hog with a bacon wrapped meatloaf, which I was grateful for – it gave me an opportunity to mooch a bit. Don’t feel too bad for him; James offered up half of his pastrami sandwich as a parting gift so he made out just fine. Swell guy, Mr. Martin. His material has a distinct 90’s feel so it’s not for everyone but if you’re into bands like The Cult, STP and Bowie’s Nine Inch Nails collaboration phase, James Martin might just tickle your ears.
Crossing the border is always unpredictable but we needn’t have worried: we zipped through in about two minutes. We even got an agent with a sense of humor, ribbing us for going to London (“Listen fellas, I’m not saying there’s nothing there, but basically there’s nothing there”). We resisted the signs for breweries, wineries and distilleries that lined Queen Elizabeth Way and stayed the course all the way to our Airbnb just three blocks from downtown London. It was a flawless first Airbnb experience for both of us. We rented a two-story carriage house with a full bathroom, kitchen and complete privacy. Jared took the loft bedroom upstairs (complete with an outdoor deck) and I crashed on the sectional couch downstairs that was so comfortable it may as well have been a bed. Our host knocked once to tell us we could pull our car up a bit more into the driveway but aside from that it was like we had the run of the place.
En route to the first of our two gigs that evening we stopped to get re-energized at Locomotive Espresso, just up the block from our Airbnb. Truly the heart & soul of any local community, it’s amazing how these independent coffee shops all have their own quirks and special touches, yet offer the same sense of familiar comfort from town to town. Locomotive is no different with its worn-in wooden floors & fixtures, soft pendulum lights, small pastry & sandwich selection, engaging staff and welcoming vibe. Their special touch? An old locomotive hauling bags of coffee beans on a looped track suspended from the ceiling. We’re suckers for a commitment to a theme and the only thing we would’ve liked more was if the train had been running. The barista offered us a choice of two different espresso roasts for our double shots and Jared got a coffee as well. Everything was dark, strong & delightful. We had a gig to get to but two minute walk + the promise of fresh donuts = we’d be back in the morning.
We drove a few blocks south to Grooves Records for a short promotional set in anticipation of gig #2 later in the evening. Like the neighborhood cafe, local record stores always seem to offer a glimpse into the local flavor despite not being terribly different from one another. My younger self was way into the dingy atmosphere of a cluttered underground shop but the older my eyes get, the more they appreciate a bright, organized space like Grooves with the music on the sound system kept to a non-deafening level. They had a great selection of local & regional artists right up front and were spinning Canadian treasures the Tragically Hip periodically during our setup & shopping times. They offer performers a discount on all purchases and I’ll be forever kicking myself in the ass for not abusing that privilege to fill what little empty space we had left in our vehicle to the brim but hey, burgeoning adult here. I responsibly only purchased a few used soul albums and the newest Tom Waits ‘Blue Valentine’ reissue… goddamn, being an adult sucks sometimes.
The staff was friendly and helpful in having the PA set up for us ahead of time so all we had to do was plug in my guitar. The booker warned that a weekday afternoon spot in the summer before the university students came back would be a hard sell for an out-of-town band but if nothing else, we saw it as a chance to get loose and tune up for our evening gig after six hours in the car. It was sparsely attended to say the least, mostly by shoppers who paused to give a quick listen on their way out but we did earn one loyal observer toward the end. He plopped down on the floor directly in front of us and listened intently for the duration of the last song, with a look on his face excited & engaging enough to let us believe our art had truly spoken to this lost soul searching for meaning in this harrowing journey we call life, and that his salvation & solace would be found in the poetry of an Echo & Sway song… then we finished, and he spoke.
Boy, did he speak. It would be impossible to recount everything he said but for several minutes he rambled incessantly about our songs, my guitar, his guitar, Jared’s beard and current trends in facial hair, the fact that my hair is thinning but he liked my hat, other color hats he thinks would work for me, Jared’s shirt, something about chocolate chip cookies, whether or not I’ve ever heard of Johnny Cash, whether or not this store carries Johnny Cash because he’s “not real well known,” garbage and littering, and tattoos, which thankfully brought things to a climax as he declared tattoos OK for men, but not women. We were still trying to process the first thing he said when we heard a loud “WHAT THE FUCK?” from the back of the store. The girl who’d been cataloging stomped up as we were attempting to refute such an offensive remark, but then he made it worse: “Well, I guess they’re OK on women some places, just not on their public real estate.” I can’t even gesture or mime the way he did for maximum effect. She handled it like a champ by sternly growling at him “Is there anything I can help you find sir?” as if she wanted to embed a few records into his head, and we couldn’t blame her. He went on a brief search for albums by the unknown up-and-comer Johnny Cash but sensed the abrupt change in the atmosphere and quickly showed himself out. If there’s some mental illness issues there I hope he gets some help… if he’s just an asshole, I hope he gets hit by a bus. We chatted a bit about Canadian music & culture, she recommended a spot to get a few local beers and we were on our way.
Our continuous search for unique venues wherever we go wielded Taproot, a performance space above the Root Cellar gastropub in the Old East Village neighborhood, just a few blocks from our Airbnb. The venue was forthright from the beginning that their pay scheme wasn’t the most lucrative for touring bands, and we’d likely make bigger bucks elsewhere but they dug the album and offered us a gig, suggesting we secure some local support to help fill some seats. We reached out to folk collective Esther’s Family and in quite the happy accident, they were able to finish their debut EP in time for the gig to double as their album release show.
The space is beautiful. Newly restored wooden floors with matching bar & seating, brick walls and lamps made of repurposed bicycle parts make it feel fresh and weathered all at once. Farm-to-table fare from the Root Cellar and organic beers by the London Brewing Co-op round out the menu and would’ve ensured we took the gig even if we weren’t making any money at all. We ordered one of those trendy charcuterie boards with a slew of delicious meats & cheeses, veggies, breads, nuts and dips our simple palates couldn’t identify but enjoyed thoroughly nonetheless. There’s a larger selection of London Brewing beers downstairs but we were content alternating our way through the Norfolk Red IPA, London Lager and Tolpuddle Porter, careful to pair each properly with their food platter counterparts to emphasize the subtle flavor notes… ha, I’m kidding. We shoveled it in and poured beers on top of it all, finishing it faster than we ought to be proud of. What a damn fine dinner.
EF arranged a sound tech for the evening who had us plugged in and ready to folk ‘n roll in mintues. We eased our way through much of the album (have you heard it yet? Stream it here) before turning the evening over to the band of the hour. I love groups that can’t be simply defined by genre and while it’d be easy to shoehorn them into the folk category, there’s something about EF that gives ’em that little something different. Frontman Lliam Buckley commanded the room with the charismatic charm of a old timey minstral, and the quartet kept pace nicely with bass, keys, cello and drums. They were a bit scattered but still incredibly tight despite limited percussion as the drummer had lost his scuffle with a kitchen knife earlier that day. They filled the silences during tuning & adjustments with jokes and lighthearted stories, and had us fully engaged all the way through their show-stopping medley of MGMT’s “Electric Feel” with “Funky Town.” Their new EP ‘High Fantastical’ is a great mix of poetic lyrics and romantic melodies, and we can’t thank them enough for sharing the evening with us.
We’d passed up the earlier recommendation of Milo’s Craft Beer Emporium because we were uncharacteristically attempting to improve our time management skills before the gig, but the Grooves staff had spoken so highly of it we ventured over for a nite cap and a late bite. In a decent sized town with a university and a college, Milo’s feels like a more of a locals place: many of the patrons looked closer to our age, scattered throughout booths & smaller tables in the main dining room but seemed to be mingling with one another. The vibe was friendly & fun. When we told our waiter the Grooves staff had recommended the place we briefly chatted about records which led to him asking what we’d purchased, and just as we began to peruse the menus we heard ‘Blue Valentine’ begin to play over the sound system… he may have just been negotiating a big tip but shit, he was going to get one. We ordered up a few lighter Ontario beers (a pilsner & a sour from breweries I wish I could remember) and some sort of boneless curried chicken from the late night snack menu we were in no way prepared to enjoy as much as we did. I can’t speak for anything else but this was far from standard pub fare, and if we’d been hungrier I would’ve ordered a few other things to try.
We retreated to our pool house for a fantastic nights’ sleep. Our host communicated quickly in the morning to coordinate a check out time, and within an hour of our leaving she’d left several kind remarks about us in a review on my profile. We’d love to return to London for another go-around with EF and I can’t imagine staying anywhere else. We nabbed our morning caffeine and some homemade donuts at Locomotive before heading west toward Sarnia to cross the border into Michigan.
Rt 402 might’ve saved us 20 minutes but we drifted a bit slower on the farm road alongside, enjoying some breathtaking views of dozens of wind turbines in the distance. We stopped at Refined Fool Brewing Company in Sarnia for lunch and hopefully a few to-go beers, as we hadn’t yet purchased anything to bring home. Refined Fool is a large industrial loft-style space, with nearly an entire wall open to outdoor seating and colorful murals throughout. The bartender welcomed us immediately, gave us the run down on beer tasting options and directed us across the room to order food from Burger Rebellion. She apologized several times for the multi-line food court setup, as their #1 complaint is people having to place two different orders but hell, there are burgers & beers in the end… the dumb shit people complain about. We were still waking up so the Uprising breakfast burger (fried egg, bacon, hash brown, ketchup & maple syrup) with two tasting flights (four 5oz beers) hit the spot.
We constructed our flights based primarily on the beer titles. We wanted a good mix of styles but of the four IPAs on, chose “And Then Bernice Flipped the Canasta Table” because well, an absurd amount of effort devoted to nonsensical titles is a hell of a lot more interesting than the IBU count… further proof that while we enjoy good beer, we could never be referred to as “snobs.” Much of the draft selection was available to go in bombers so we filled a few boxes and headed for the border. As always, Canada bats a thousand and if the winters weren’t so cold, I’d move here in a heartbeat.
The Blue Water Bridge crossing was only a slightly longer wait than the day before. Our agent didn’t have quite the sense of humor as his New York counterpart but let us through quickly and though I’d looked up a few potential beer stops along the way, we made a beeline for Ann Arbor to get settled and try as many of their five breweries as we could squeeze in. All the highway travel was necessary but damn was it getting old fast. We lucked into a parking spot right in front of our evening gig so we took a few minutes to scope things out; it’s one of the few we’ve booked over the years that required a signed agreement and though probably harmless, we wanted to make sure we weren’t getting in over our heads… turns out it’s just a nice space in a well preserved building and they want to keep it that way by weeding out the riffraff. We ventured off to celebrate our subsided fears by drinking beer.
My wife and I have long enjoyed bottles of assorted Belgian styles from Jolly Pumpkin Cafe & Brewery and with Jared’s ever expanding palate allowing him a new appreciation for sours, we hit there first. Grabbing two seats at the bar in the main room we immediately noticed the fulfillment of three requirements for every nice but ordinary brewpub in America: dark wood, dim lighting & classic rock (henceforth to be known as the brewpub three), though the chandeliers made of old kitchen utensils were a nice touch. The plain atmosphere was more than made up for by our charismatic bartender who, from the moment she handed us our beer menus, playfully ribbed Jared without abandon when he casually muttered to me that he wished the print were larger. Now I understand it’s a college town but she was way more amused by this than she ought to have been but even Jared loved every moment of her shameless laughing: “Larger print? How old even ARE you?!” She proceeded to giggle a bit each time she walked by as we sipped our Bam Biere and Oro de Calabaza, and injected the the experience with that little something extra we’re always looking for. We tipped her well and passed on the bottle selection since we didn’t see anything we can’t get at home. While any beer is better on draft we were hoping for a few brewpub exclusives but hey, can’t win ’em all.
We walked a few blocks to the Beer Grotto, hoping for some fresh pints from other regional breweries we wouldn’t have time to visit. Their website mission statement describes them as “meddlers and experimenters, beer geeks and craft cocktail purveyors, friendly faces with discerning palettes. We’ve been thrilled for some time to offer a great selection of craft beer from all over. But we have a larger mission these days: to be much more than just a cozy taproom to imbibe at. We’ve truly become obsessed with fostering an approachable environment that celebrates progressive ideas, friendship, and of course, tasty drinks of all kinds” … we found them to be slightly above grumpy, begrudgingly pouring beers whilst attempting to communicate as little as possible and avoid all eye contact, though that’s based on one quick visit and all we wanted was to drink beers outside so we didn’t really give a shit.
We ordered up a few IPAs by Michigan’s Eternity and Avron breweries at the cafeteria-style counter, were granted permission to take them outside before being immediately met by a sign on the patio that instructed all glassware must be handled by a server. We were confused and while I’m sure we could’ve crept to a table unnoticed we didn’t want to be disrespectful so we waited a few minutes for a highly trained purveyor of the serving arts to gracefully deliver our glass vessels of alcoholic nectar so as not to disturb the delicate balance of the established directives (READ: our awkward college-aged waiter spills 1/3 of my beer while clumsily dropping them on the table, barely apologizes and tells us if we want anything else we have to go back in because we’re outside of some designated patio area and table service isn’t offered). The beers were tasty and the ivy-covered brick walls are very pretty but the whole thing was more trouble than it was worth. Onward.
Jared went to browse comics at Vault of Midnight while I, with the hostess’ permission but still a vague aura of annoyance, grabbed an outdoor table at Grizzly Peak Brewing Company (am I missing something? Why doesn’t anyone want you to sit outside in this town?) I probably didn’t need a third microbrew within an hour but I had been cheated out of 1/3 of my previous beer after all. I’m loving the trendy beer of the moment; the New England style hazy IPA that everyone’s brewing these days and GP’s was exceptional. I ducked in to use the bathroom and sure enough the brewpub three were satisfied. Sometimes you can set your watch by this stuff.
I’d been looking forward to Frita Batidos from the moment I read about it on a Michigan food blog. Fast-casual Cuban inspired food & cocktails sounded like a can’t-lose situation. We ordered up two chorizo burgers topped with shoestring fries, sweet chili mayo, avocado spread, muenster cheese and egg (another trend sweeping the nation I’m more than happy to partake in at every opportunity) and some crisped plantains with cilantro-lime salsa to go, and ate on the back porch of our B&B. It was a gloriously delicious mess I would seriously consider having shipped to my house if anyone in Ann Arbor would be willing. Cuba’s been on my list for a long time and Frita Batidos helped move it up a bit, especially with new regulations that make visiting easier.
Speaking of our B&B, we checked in quickly so we could eat before our food got cold. The Cadgwith Too is located a few blocks from downtown, unassumingly on the corner of Third & Mosley. We tried the B&B thing a few years back in Sackets Harbor and found the lower price & inclusion of breakfast most appealing, if slightly awkward: I’m guessing many B&B owners are used to guests being older, able to swap stories about grandchildren, etc. The Sackets Harbor folks were sweet but didn’t have much to say to the tattooed troubadour and bearded poet. I was hesitant about this place only because I could find very little about it online – reviews, listings, praise and criticism were all scarce, as if it existed in name only. We took a chance because the price was right, and hoped it was just a case of the place being modestly old fashioned. We arranged the date promptly through email, sent a deposit check and couldn’t have been happier with the accommodations. Comfortable twin beds in a private room with shared bath (though to my knowledge we were the only guests), complete privacy, peace & quiet with a spacious back patio overlooking a park where we could slop down our Frita Batidos. If we’d had more time before the gig I would’ve taken a nap in the hammock.
When I emailed Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tea Room in February I was just looking to get a feel for the place and see if we’d be a good fit, so I was surprised when Michelle replied and said they were booked through 2018 and started into 2019. Damn, this must be a highly sought after gig – who books that far ahead? I started looking elsewhere until she contacted me again a week later, saying she’d listened to the album, thought we’d fit in well and had spoken to the local guy who had the date we were after – he was willing to move his show to fill a cancellation she had later in the year, and that freed up this evening for us. Class act, that one. Between the booking fiasco and aforementioned performance contract with more than a dozen caveats we were cautiously optimistic but needn’t have worried.
The tea room is a cozy, bright space on the second floor overlooking the main drag, and Michelle greeted us warmly upon arrival to get us set up and couldn’t have been more helpful or nice. We intentionally planned this stop before the fall arrival of MU students, as I imagine they’re every bit as fervent as our Penn State crowds in PA, which bode very well for our leisure time but not so much for the gig – Michelle had warned how thin the summer crowds could be, especially on nice nights and this one was damn near perfect. Still, while not packed to the rafters we had a few folks who stayed for the majority & chatted during the set break, and we sold a few CDs. Michelle offered to have us again anytime we’re willing to make the trip, which will give us a great excuse to go back for more Frita Batidos. Overall a superb time where our only real inconvenience was supplying our own PA. A gig as established as this one could probably benefit from having an in-house sound system but we had enough fun we’d lug ours back again.
The coffee was delicious but more beers were needed to quench our thirsts after a two hour set. Unfortunately we chose Arbor Brewing just around the corner and regretted it almost immediately when for the third time, our simple desire to sit outside and drink a few beers in the summer air came rife with unnecessary complications. For fuck’s sake, most of the restaurants in town offer outdoor seating, so why did it so often seem like they didn’t want us to sit there? I understand maybe they want to save the tables for diners, afraid they won’t make much on a check of just a few beers but it was late, peak dining hours had passed and three of the four tables outside were open. The hostess resentfully complied, and when we asked our waitress if anything less than a full pint was an option, she treated it as an imposition on par with asking for one of her kidneys. The kicker through all of it was the one IPA was actually really good, and we wanted to take some home. We’d seen a cooler just inside with six packs but that particular beer wasn’t in it, so we inquired about a growler: “I’m sorry but we don’t fill growlers with our higher alcohol beers.” We doubled checked the ABV on the menu, and it was a little over 8%. I’ve no idea what they found so offensive about two middle aged dudes who just wanted to sit quietly, drink beer and chat but it seemed they were actively working to get rid of us. Fuck this place.
Since Arbor made it clear they had no interest in feeding us, we followed the light a few blocks up the street toward a large TAPAS sign, calling out to us like a beacon: Eat! Share! Have a drink, outside on our patio without judgment! Aventura is a bit upscale and it wouldn’t surprise me if their clientele is comprised largely of well-to-do professors and UM staff with too much money to spend but it’s got an authentic European feel and friendly staff WHO DIDN’T FUCKING COMPLAIN WHEN WE ASKED TO SIT OUTSIDE. We practically had the patio to ourselves under the partial roof & string lights, and ordered up another cheese/cracker/jam/bread/vegetable menagerie, a few Spanish lagers and a glass of red wine, which our waitress brought in its own little carafe and poured into a glass at the table… again, the kind of elegant touch some stuffy conservative probably feels all self-important over but us salt of the earth types see as an extra dish that’s gonna need washed. Nevertheless, a perfect late night snack and excellent way to end the evening.
After a fantastic nights’ sleep we enjoyed a heap of scrambled eggs, bacon & toast courtesy of Jeff at the Cadgwith Too. He checked to make sure we didn’t need anything but gave us privacy and left us to check out at our leisure. We’d have preferred to forego one of the more uninteresting drives in the country across Ohio on I-80 but I was hoping to make it home in time to catch the last baseball game of the season with my family in State College, and there were a few easy beer stops just off the highway. Back in 2011 we stopped in Toledo en route to a wedding in South Dakota for lunch & beers at the Maumee Bay Brewpub, and our collective memories placed Toledo somewhere in the “filthy shithole” category. Searching for the Black Cloister Brewery though, we found the downtown to have a weary, welcoming charm with new murals adorning the sides of historic buildings still bearing old storefront signs.
We arrived just as they were opening the doors (sorry to have been those guys; we really do try to avoid it whenever we can) and were welcomed into a large Abbey-style hall with sweeping arches and minimalist decor. There was classic rock playing but the atmosphere easily evades the monotony of the brewpub 3 thanks to a few key touches in its large medieval style chandeliers and sprawling mural depicting historic war scenes interspersed with little pop culture blips like the Death Star. We ordered up a Helles Angel lager & Pale Rider IPA and couldn’t even sit to drink them; the building dates back to the late 1800’s, it’s got soul in every nook & cranny and we couldn’t help but wander. Tasty beers as well, this place is too cool. Sometimes beers before noon are the best beers, especially on a rainy morning.
*Side Note* A guy from Toledo wrote to call me an asshole when I referred to his city as a cesspool after our 2011 visit… dude, I divided my time growing up between a ghetto in central Baltimore and a rural PA farm town where the locals went apeshit and offered thousands of dollars in reward money to apprehend some hooligans who tipped over Santa’s hut in our town square…. no actual vandalism was done, they just tipped it over. I’ve still got a great deal of pride about both, yet I can’t help but laugh when someone makes a comment like “you grew up in Baltimore in the 80’s, how did you make it out alive?!” The point: it’s obviously hard to pass judgement based on these little pocket stops, and rest assured any insulting words are more comedic effect than serious slander.
I remember an old joke from the Drew Carey Show where he responded to someone’s insulting of Cleveland with “looks like somebody needs a trip to Youngstown for some perspective.” Like much of the rust belt, time hasn’t been kind to Youngstown. The burden is everywhere, in the burned out buildings, littered highways and lost, desperate looking souls wandering the side streets. It looks a lot like our town. There’s nothing like a visit to church to lift one’s spirits, however, and much like Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh, Noble Creature Cask House has taken the religion out of an old house of worship and replaced it with food & drink, something I find much easier to put my faith in (side note: Jared is quite devoted to his faith, and I’d never want anyone who finds their way to his blog from here to think otherwise… my heathen ways are my own). Noble Creature is much smaller and more intimate than CBW, with lots of light coming in the stained glass windows and some pew seating in addition to long high top tables and traditional bar at the head of the room where the altar would’ve been (fitting, yes?).
They had a good selection of eight or nine beer styles & a few sandwiches listed on a chalkboard and since we weren’t in Ann Arbor anymore, we were welcomed to sit outside where they gladly delivered our muffaletta & Cuban sandwiches each with a healthy handful of chips. The bartender even smiled while doing it! I’ll be damned. Food was simple but damn tasty, and the Bohemian Pilsener, IPA and saison were all flavorful & seasoned enough you’d never know they were a newer brewery. Posters advertised live original music, DJs spinning punk, ska & new wave and bring-your-own-vinyl nights. Do they have a scene here? Shit. We were hoping to chat with the bartender a bit about it but they were getting busy. They have a nice stage at Black Cloister too; looks like a few shows over a long weekend in Ohio is something we should look into.
That, my friends, is all she wrote. We did a three hour haul back to State College, where Jared dropped me off at Medlar Field at Lubrano park where I reunited with my family, we gorged ourselves on much sausage & beer and watched the State College Spikes lose the fourth home game we attended this season. Post-game fireworks over the stadium while “Born to Run” played over the loudspeaker… perfect end to a perfect weekend.
A few photos by Jared. More to come.
March 20, 2018 § Leave a comment
This was a whirlwind jaunt: two shows in two and a half days, with little time to explore otherwise. However I’m traveling, my posts here typically reflect the wide variety of local fare I try to indulge in, from as many establishments I can visit in whatever limited time I’ve got. Alas, music was the focus here and while it wasn’t filled with nearly the diverse amount of food & beer I strive for, the trip was above & beyond our expectations for the simple fact that Reykjavik is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been.
In March of 2015 I did a short tour of the UK & Ireland alongside my Echo & Sway comrade Jared A. Conti, our new friends Charley Edwards and her immensely talented singer/songwriter boyfriend Chris Stringer. It was a wonderful week on the road and one of the best things I’ve ever done; we got along as though we’d known each other for years and Chris became an incredible new influence. The shows were some of the most inspiring we’d ever played but it’d be quite some time before they could come to the US so we conspired to meet somewhere in between until then. We settled on Reykjavik for its troubadour scene and cheap flights. Charley and Jared were sorely missed but given the good experience we had I’m positive it won’t be our last visit.
Iceland’s WOW Air is a fairly new budget airline with largely negative reviews, but for a less than $300 round trip flight out of Newark (£90 for Chris out of London Gatwick) I was willing to take the chance. It would appear the negative reviews are mostly by uptight, high maintenance types who can’t read the basic airline info & FAQ presented when booking a ticket (though the gripes about cancelled/delayed/rerouted flights are perfectly justifiable, the majority of the complaints are the former). Ours were pleasant but absolute no-frills experiences, and the low prices are contingent on your adhering to their policies. Don’t want to pay outrageous prices for bottled water and bagged snacks? Get them in the airport before you board. Upset at the lack of in-flight entertainment? Bring a book. Can’t fit all of your stuff in the required size for free carry-on luggage? Pay for the upgrade, which is almost double the space. The added fees are a nuisance but again, they’re spelled out plain as day on the website before you make your purchase. I downed a goblet of Duvel in the Belgian Beer Cafe, popped a Sominex just before takeoff and it was smooth sailing.
I landed at Keflavik airport shortly before the absurd hour of 5:00 AM. Reykjavik is another hours’ ride and the €6 FlyBus is waiting outside after every incoming flight. There were a few stops in smaller villages but it was far too dark to see anything. Chris was gracious enough to meet me at the bus station at such a horrible time in the morning (he’d landed the day before), we walked about 10 minutes north to Baldursbra Guesthouse and settled into a basic but nice room on the third floor overlooking the snow covered street. Bathrooms are shared between three rooms per floor and we never had to wait despite the place being filled to capacity, and it was surprisingly quiet at all hours given how compact everything is. There’s a good assortment of books and board games in the common area, plenty of space to relax and it’s all watched over by two ferocious dauschunds in adorable sweaters. We didn’t interact much with the owners but they were very friendly (witnessing the gentleman doing home repairs in his underwear was a bonus), though slightly disappointed that we missed out on breakfast every morning. It looked delicious but we were too lazy to get out of bed in time.
Reykjavik had just experienced their greatest snow accumulation since 1937 a few days before, prompting Chris’ first message to me upon landing: “Bring boots.” It made walking the side roads a little precarious but the city kept up nicely clearing the main streets and sidewalks. We ventured into town for breakfast at Sandholt Bakery on recommendation from local blog I Heart Reykjavik and quickly discovered all the tales we’d heard about Reykjavik’s expensive restaurant scene to be true. My double espresso and croissant with house-made jam, while delicious, ran me about $16. Fuck. Maybe we could meander down to the harbor and survive off of seaweed for two days. Prices notwithstanding, Sandholt was the perfect spot to relax and catch up a bit, in a corner booth lined with soft couch-sized pillows and the sound of 80’s new wave playing throughout.
We wandered around as the sun came up, admiring the architecture, sculptures and graffiti all over the city before making our way up to the Hallgrímskirkja Church that looms over much of the city. Like most European churches it’s a sight to behold and beats the shit out of our uninspired looking houses of worship. There’s a statue of Leif Eriksson in front as well (ironically a gift from the US) and a waffle cart on the premises, though cruelly not open so early as we were there. We’d planned to take the elevator to the observation deck where the views are supposed to be phenomenal but the line was insane and we had so much more
beer to drink Icelandic culture to take in before the show that night.
The Sun Voyager sculpture on the waterfront is something else. An ode to the sun, undiscovered territories, hope, progress and freedom… if that weren’t badass enough it’s just awesome to look at, with a perfect backdrop of crystal clear water and snow covered mountains in the distance. The waterfront is usually my favorite part of any city and despite having frozen feet from scaling a snow bank (the walks weren’t yet plowed where we’d chosen to cross) this was no exception. I could’ve used a hot chocolate or a whiskey to warm me up but I’ll be damned if that view isn’t one of the best I’ve ever taken in.
It was noon and time for a beer. I hadn’t read enough about Icelandic microbrew to know what to expect but assumed if nothing else we’d have a few decent lagers. With so many signs for US and European beers in the windows of the craft beer bars I was afraid we’d be limited to those, so we were thrilled to spend two days drinking native pales and IPAs, stouts and porters, even saisons and farmhouse ales, some of the best I’ve had abroad.
We happened upon Kaldi Bar, a cozy locals pub and didn’t want to leave. Some bars are just places to grab a drink while others give you a window into a neighborhood or city, and Kaldi is definitely the latter. We were immediately welcomed to sit at the bar, while the bartender poured us several liberal samples of different brews. Beer in Reykjavik is as pricey as the food (about $10-11 per pint) and we appreciated the option to choose which styles to go broke on.
After we’d settled on drinks we spent a solid hour talking with the bartender/owner, and not just your run-of-the-mill, “Here’s what you should do and see while you’re in Reykjavik” chit chat. He schooled us on Icelandic people and culture, how he came to love the city enough to relocate here and the changes that have occurred since his citizenship, similarities and differences between our respective countries… if high school politics and geography had been discussed over beers with passionate visiting natives I might have paid better attention. We slipped him a flyer for that night’s show as we were about to leave, and he insisted we stay a bit longer while he took on the task of impromptu PR man, requesting more flyers for the bar, telling the other patrons to go see us, even pulling up videos on his phone and plugging into the sound system in an effort to pimp us out. Our quick stop for a beer turned into well over an hour and we were grateful for every moment.
We wandered the main drag Laugavegur looking for Dillon whiskey bar, anxious to try some local spirits. We perused their impressive selection of 150+ but enjoyed the locals brews from Kaldi so much we ordered two draft IPAs from Reykjavik’s Borg Brewing instead. There’s an outdoor archway leading to a backyard garden that I’m sure is much more inviting when not covered in two feet of snow and ice, and the inside is nice classic dive bar style if a little hard & classic rock-centric for my taste (their playlist read like a who’s-who of every late 70’s radio staple you never need to hear again). We sat next to the window and watched outside as kids in costumes ducked in and out of shops along Laugavegur looking for candy, a springtime custom that looks suspiciously like Halloween. Two Halloweens? This country’s getting cooler all the time.
If you’re looking to open a museum celebrating punk rock, a former underground public toilet is probably the most fitting place for it. The Icelandic Punk Museum is one of the most unique off-the-beaten-path attractions I’ve ever been to. Learn about the genre’s history in Iceland via newspapers, magazine clippings and show flyers as you navigate your way through stalls and urinal fixtures, some of which are actually held together with duct tape and one that is still operational. In the last room you can try on old studded leather jackets and bang away on a guitar or drum set. There are also headphones suspended from LP jackets you can pull down from the ceiling and hear the bands you just read about, some of which are available for purchase from the (true to form) pissy slacker punk working the counter who’d rather chat on his phone and play air drums than take your money. Someone told us John Lydon had a hand in seeing this project through to fruition and if that’s true, it’s the most worthwhile thing he’s done in years.
We met renowned Icelandic troubadour Svavar Knutur at Cafe Rosenberg a few hours before showtime for sound check. We’d glimpsed Icelandic hospitality already and Svavar was determined to take it to the next level. He’s one of Europe’s hardest working musicians who not only set us up with a supporting gig at the city’s premier folk club but allowed us the use of his guitar so we wouldn’t have to pay airline fees for hauling one of our own. After sound check we got acquainted over a few dark Einstock beers, BSing about music & politics, but mostly commiserating about historical architecture, and cities’ tendencies to bulldoze it in favor of hotels for tourists, who are likely visiting to see historical architecture… it’s a ridiculous cycle taking happening in more places, enough to make your head hurt. We retreated to our guesthouse for a change into some nicer clothes before showtime.
We returned awhile later to a very respectable crowd, set to discuss a game plan when Svavar dropped some more of that Icelandic hospitality, insisting that HE open for US. We were nobodies here, and he’s Svavar fucking Knutur – seriously, click on the link and check him out – yet he was adamant that we were the guests of honor, to be treated as such… sure dude, my nerves weren’t tingling enough. At least the coin toss went in my favor and I didn’t have to follow Chris as well. The venue is a singer/songwriter’s dream, cozy and inviting with the stage emanating a rich, warm sound. Svavar was brilliant, dressed to the nines and complimenting his songs with wonderfully funny stories, poignant remarks and a smooth croon. He split his performance between English & Icelandic, and it was beautiful to listen to (we laughed along with the crowd even when we couldn’t understand a word, truly showing our ignorance). He is a master of his craft and I can see why he’s such an attraction throughout Europe.
He called me to the stage immediately following his first set, where I nervously balked at introducing myself. Recalling some discussion during sound check, I said the first thing that came into my head: “My name is Anthony James LaLota, I’m from the US and I did not vote for Donald Trump.” That garnered much laughter and a huge round of applause… I felt right at home. With little language barrier, everyone seemed receptive to my dumb stories and I even saw a few people singing along when I closed with Tom Waits’ “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You.”
After a second set by Svavar, Chris took the stage to close out the evening. People cross countries & oceans to see their favorite bands perform and if time & money weren’t obstacles, I’d be in London every gig he played at some dingy pub. His songwriting, voice & lyrics, wry sense of humor are all top notch. He should be a much bigger part of the London folk scene than he is. His stripped down version of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” is always a crowd pleaser, especially with the callback lines toward the end and this night was no exception.
After enjoying a dinner of local fish Svavar handed us every dime from the cover charge despite our agreement that it be split three ways. Swell guy, that one. This was one of the finest shows we’ve ever played, in a venue made for what we do. Sadly, less than a year afterward we learned that Rosenberg had closed down and will be reopened as a touristy Irish pub – hardly necessary considering The Dubliner is just a few blocks away. An unfortunate blow to the local folk scene, and yet another authentic Icelandic experience visitors will be stripped of. I feel unbelievably fortunate to have performed on that stage before it closed.
We skipped breakfast the next morning in favor of sleeping in, as jet lag finally caught up to me and we lazed around awhile reflecting on the gig. By the time we got out it was closer to lunch so we ordered up a few burgers & fries at the Lebowski Bar on Laugavegur. Touristy as all hell but the commitment and execution are both solid, and my old man (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, a real life embodiment of The Dude) would’ve been horribly disappointed if I hadn’t gone in and snapped a few photos. We opted for beers instead of the requisite White Russians because vodka is devil’s piss and cool as The Dude is, he should’ve had a better signature cocktail.
We took another walk around the city to take in some sights and snag a few hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, renowned for being the best hot dog stand in Europe. Their list of famous visitors includes Bill Clinton and the guy from Metallica so it must be true. A sign in the window recommended ordering “eina með öllu” (“the works”); I’ve no idea what all that included but it was damn tasty. After getting denied by another massive line at Hallgrimskirkja we found ourselves back at Kaldi Bar, again chatting up the bar owner, eager to hear about the show and inquire about the next one. We invited troubadour #2, our witty & gracious host for the evening Sveinn Gudmundsson to join us for a pre-show beer, though we’d gotten acquainted briefly when he attended the Rosenberg show the night before. I hated him immediately, as I do any man with such spectacular hair, but after putting aside my searing jealousy we made fast friends. After reading the description of his debut album, “Icelandic lyrics about cats, stomach aches, Vulcans and survival experts” we knew he’d be a good fit for our goofy, endearing troop.
Sveinn took us to Lucky Records on the way to the gig. We didn’t have nearly enough time to look around and much of the 45’s I thumbed through were in Icelandic but I would’ve bought several based on the artwork alone. Fortunately for my wallet, my carry on bag was stuffed as full as it could be and after somehow resisting the urge to visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum, we pressed on to Reykjavik Roasters for gig #2. Nestled on a hill among what looks to be a community of apartments, it’s a bright & modern cafe with a customer accessible turntable, hand-painted murals throughout and one hell of a tasty avocado toast – my first foray into what is apparently quite the hipster dish at the moment. They set us up at the end of the elongated main room, with all of the couches & chairs pointed our way and a sweet disco lamp glowing behind us.
Sveinn took the hospitality torch from Svavar by also offering us the use of his guitar, and insisting on opening the show which again, was absurd but very generous. Though he offered introductions in English for our benefit, he sang almost exclusively in Icelandic (save for a fantastically unexpected version of “Gangster’s Paradise,” which we weren’t ashamed in the least to sing along with) but hell if it mattered – his songs were haunting and beautiful, and everything I wanted folk music of this region to sound like. Insert whatever cliche you’d like about music being universal, and connecting us despite language barriers because it definitely applies here. I would’ve gladly played a shorter set to listen to him sing a few more songs.
If it didn’t suck enough following the talented local fellow, I also got to follow Chris… I hate following Chris. Why I insist on touring with such a talented SOB is beyond me. His set was beyond great as usual. We agreed to each do a Springsteen song and he did the Boss proud with “Born to Run.” I could write more about his brilliance but just listen to him yourself already. We had another great crowd, much more family oriented with the coffee shop setting. Friends of Sveinn brought their kids, who drew pictures of him with crayons while he performed. We drank way too much coffee and met some more fantastic people including Tryggvi, another local singer/songwriter I’d love to share a gig with when we return someday. I closed out the evening (holding up my end of the bargain with “Dancing in the Dark”) and the cafe manager chatted us up awhile before gifting us some bags of fresh roasted beans.
I can’t overstate how much I love this shit. There’s way better money in having the support of a label, legal representation and all that garbage but it’s not nearly as much fun… I’ll trade a booking agent and fancy green room for going my own way, hanging with the crowd and getting to know people who don’t suck any day. It’s got more soul.
For the third time, we found ourselves back at Kaldi after the gig. Part of me wanted to explore and try somewhere else but there’s just something about the place… the delicious beer, the homey vibe and congenial owner had us smitten. Sveinn joined us for a few rounds and we spent hours swapping stories. We were contemplating leaving when a man approached our tiny corner table, obscured by several dozen people at this point:
“John would like to buy you a round.”
(Chris & I, to each other) “Who the fuck is John?”
“The owner. I can bring you another round or we can take one off of your tab.”
Shit. We’ve been chatting with this guy a ton and singing his praises for the past 24 hours, we probably should’ve known his name. I’m gonna say he never told us because that makes us sound less terrible. And hell yes, we’ll have another round. All we have to do tomorrow is fly home.
Several beers in and realizing we hadn’t eaten in hours, I recalled seeing a Voffluvagninn waffle stand down by the harbor and a pilgrimage began. It looked like the same stand that had disappointed us the day before by not being open outside of Hallgrimskirkja; this was their chance to make it up to us, and make it up to us they did with fresh, warm waffles topped with ice cream and chocolate. We thanked Sveinn for his kindness and wonderful company before bidding him adieu, then stopped by Lake Tjornin on our way back to Baldursbra. We’d seen locals walking across the ice the past few days, were determined to do the same before we left and figured we’d look less like dumb, overexcited morons later at night with nobody around. Fun and mischievous as that was, a few minutes later we spied a fresh bed of untouched snow across the street on the lawn of the British Embassy, just dying for us to desecrate it with a few drunken snow angels and all that stood in the way was a very short fence we could easily hop after six or seven tries… in hindsight, maybe not the best idea but surely nobody would arrest us for making a couple of harmless snow angels.
Baldursbra has a courtyard with a hot tub. We may not have made it down for breakfast but we damn sure weren’t passing up a chance to relax in an outdoor hot tub with a bottle of whiskey in below freezing temperatures. I Skyped with my family so they could laugh at what idiots we were (also because I missed the hell out of them), we held on to our reunion awhile longer before making our way up for a subpar nights’ sleep. I was so glad our flights weren’t too early in the morning.
It was no surprise we overslept and missed breakfast yet again. We hurried through a couple of showers (which have a strong smell of sulphur/eggs due to the geothermal origins of the warm water… kinda weird but once out you don’t smell it at all) and made one last attempt to take in some views at Hallgrimskirkja. The line wasn’t as long as previous days but we weren’t taking any chances. We grabbed some pastries at the station and boarded the Flybus back to the airport, much more scenic now that it wasn’t 5:00 in the morning. You could see some small villages and volcanoes in the distance; it was really a beautiful ride. We arrived at Keflavik to find my flight had been delayed by 30 minutes; we promptly
logged on to Yelp to report WOW as a bullshit airline run by incompetent assholes grabbed a couple of beers & a surprisingly decent airport pizza and spent the extra time reminiscing about the incredible few days we just had.
A year later, I have nothing but overwhelmingly positive memories of this trip. We made incredible new friends, shared stories and bonded through music. Everyone we met was unbelievably friendly and there were good vibes everywhere; it was damn good for the soul. I ducked into a gift shop before we left and bought some puffin memorabilia for my wife & kid; he still sleeps with his stuffed puffin and it brings a smile to my face every night remembering where it came from. He still asks me at least once a week if I’ll take him to Iceland someday… the answer is always an unequivocal yes. I can’t wait for that day to come.
October 11, 2016 § Leave a comment
It’s hard to believe it’s been over five years since I wrote a scathing review on Beer Advocate of the newly relocated Otto’s Pub & Brewery, just up the road from their former Atherton Street location on the outskirts of State College. They’d just moved into the much larger Quaker Steak & Lube building, solving many of their problems (namely their parking issues) but abandoning the charm and quaintness of the smaller brewpub my wife and I had come to love over the years. I’m not typically averse to change and am more than happy for their success but the bigger, louder restaurant overloaded with big screen TVs and cocktails with names like Screaming Orgasm all read like just another sports bar rather than a unique independent.
Fast-forward to the present and we visit more often than ever. It started as a quick and easy dinner option after our weekly grocery run to the nearby Wegman’s and Trader Joe’s plaza – after all, their beer was still top notch, if often limited to their flagships and single guest tap, presumably due to brewing constrictions caused by the big move. The menu was also a fraction of what it had been but again, we assumed it would expand as they became more settled into the new digs. Over time though, we realized we were visiting so often because we wanted to, not just for the convenient location.
It’s still got TVs everywhere and they’re often broadcasting sports I have no desire to watch while I eat but we’ve accepted we’re in the minority where that’s concerned (especially in State College where, as I’ve indicated elsewhere on this blog, they’re fanatical about football and prone to rioting over it… it’s likely a crime to not have TVs in your establishment to show PSU games). But it’s also got enough going for it that the pros far outweigh the cons:
- The beer is consistently great. Their flagship brews are standouts, and make the most of everyday styles to please casual drinkers and aficionados alike. We’re not huge red ale fans but their Red Mo is a fantastic anytime drinker, and the Mount Nittany Pale Ale, Slab Cabin IPA and Double D DIPA are better than most. Even their Spring Creek Vienna style lager is a solid representation of a style I don’t overly enjoy. They have two casks that alternate bitters, IPAs and the ever-popular Jolly Roger Imperial Stout. Best of all, they started churning out a great assortment of seasonals and one-offs once their brewing operations were firing on all cylinders again, and they’ve been better than ever. Their Apple Tripel, Schwarzbier, Hefeweizen, Ottonator and Winter Warmer variations are all beers we look forward to each year. There’s even a house-made root beer.
- The food is as consistently great, and comes fast even during peak dining hours. The menu changes seasonally but maintains a number of “Otto’s Favorites” items like the cobb salad, beef on weck, black bean burrito (with optional chicken, steak, shrimp or pulled pork but equally delicious vegetarian style) buffalo mac ‘n cheese and beer brined smoked chicken. They also added wood fired pizza with a half dozen pies to the regular menu and a special to accompany their weekly features (my personal favorite: chorizo romesco manchego with red onion and roasted red peppers).
- Much of the menu is locally sourced, a plus in any restaurant (and not a “hipster thing” as I’ve heard it referred to in my small-minded small town… eating local and fresh supports your community’s economy and is better for you… it’s just good sense). There’s a bulletin board in the lobby with a list of local vendors they utilize, everything from Hog’s Galore farm in Philipsburg to State College’s own Gemelli Bakery.
- Their kids’ menu beats the shit out of every kids’ menu you’ve ever seen. Criticize Jamie Oliver and his annoying accent all you want but having something for kids other than chicken strips and fries ain’t a bad idea. Otto’s offers salmon with lemon herb butter, pasta from local Fasta & Ravioli company, quesadillas with cheese or beans and mini wood fired pizzas next to classics like PB&J and yes, chicken fingers, though they can grill them instead of frying. $5 buys an entree plus a side (chips & fresh salsa, whipped potatoes, jasmine rice, apple slices, carrots & dip, among others), a drink and a warm chocolate chip cookie for mom & dad to split on the way home (before you call me a monster: our kid gets babysat by his grandparents all week and is fed ice cream and sweets on a daily basis. Plus, we paid for the dinner… the damn cookie is ours).
- They train their staff extremely well. From the hostesses to the bartenders we’ve never had anyone be remotely rude to us, and most are exceptionally friendly. The wait staff are keen to talk up their pub club benefits but have never been pushy about it. Even the cooks working the pizza oven are more than accommodating when Enzo insists on staring, mesmerized by the fire and the assembly of pies.
- Live music and entertainment: though I don’t believe we’ve actually seen a band here (if we’re in SC for weekend music we’re usually downtown to catch one of our friends’ bands at Zeno’s or the Darkhorse), I’m a fan of anywhere that supports live, local music. It’s the folk, blues and Americana that typically accompanies a brewpub atmosphere and that’s not a bad thing. On select Sundays they have a magician that walks the dining room, though he won’t make you feel bad if you politely refuse his services because your kid’s just not ready for that yet (Enzo’s tendency to stare blankly at the unfamiliar would probably just bum the guy out).
- The gift shop: They’ve got every style beer glass imaginable, each imprinted with the name and logo of the corresponding Otto’s beer. Shirts in all colors and sizes, growlers & caddies, beer-infused soaps, shampoos, chocolates and other assorted confections, and a Pennsylvania-centric takeout beer selection. It’s the perfect gift shop for regulars and out-of-towners alike.
- Firkin Friday: every Friday at 5:00 they tap a fresh cask, usually one of their flagships that’s been dry hopped with different varieties, or something more experimental. They’re even priced slightly less than one of their regular pints, ensuring that they’ll go quickly – it’s usually kicked within the hour.
- Everything is fairly priced. Dinner for the three of us plus a round of beers is usually between $30-35. Ordering a 1/2 price pizza on Sundays makes it cheaper yet.
Otto’s doesn’t have the best of everything. I prefer Selinsgrove Brewery’s chili, Riepstine’s Alpha Deuce IPA and Elk Creek Cafe’s atmosphere to any of Otto’s counterparts, but they strike an impeccable balance of everything we enjoy. In a region inundated with great options, Otto’s satisfies on all levels, and is somewhere I’d take an out-of-town visitor to without hesitation every time. If they had one dining area without any damn TVs, they’d be better yet.
August 9, 2016 § Leave a comment
“We’re not used to playing venues with seats. I checked with management and they said it’s okay for you guys to stand. Matter of fact it’s encouraged because I’m gonna be shaking my ass all night.” (Rhett Miller, beginning the evening’s festivities).
We’ve got to be choosy about our concerts and nights out in general these days, what with the kid and all. We had tickets to see the Old 97’s in 2009, the year we bought our house. The closing fell on the same day, late enough there was no way we’d catch the show considering it was a four hour drive away in Maryland. My wife didn’t even remember this when she surprised me with tickets for my birthday, and the veteran alt-country rockers put on a great fucking show, more than worthy of one of our rare nights out together.
We had pre-show dinner and beers at Liberty Craft House downtown. I’ve written about Liberty previously and still have mostly good things to say. It was surprisingly not busy during peak dinner hour and the R&B/soul station they had queued up was ideal for a quiet dinner without our manic child. Fig/prosciutto/arugula/balsamic and kale/tomato/caesar flatbreads were tasty and filling enough to sustain us through showtime.
We saw the Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers on the Rock & Roll Means Well tour at the State Theater in 2008 and it was one of the best shows we’ve ever been to. The only negative was the lack of alcohol – I don’t mind pre-gaming and am not above sneaking a flask sometimes when booze is prohibited but if there are two bands whose shows demand to be enjoyed with an open beer freely in one’s hand, they’re THS and DBT. We were feeling similarly about the Old 97’s and were delighted to discover the addition of a liquor license and small bar to the theater lobby. I was eyeballing a can of Sierra Nevada pale ale (and would have even settled for one of those Miller Lite cans with the screw-top lids) when we noticed they had local Elk Creek Cafe beer on tap. Double Rainbow IPA and Poe Paddy Porter, hot damn. There was also wine and a small liquor/mixer assortment.
I’m a big proponent of catching the opener – back in my punk rock days, my band was often it. They know you’re there for the headliner but are trying their damndest to make a name for themselves, and always appreciate having the majority of the crowd come early (one particularly discouraging incident occurred when my band opened for New Found Glory and much of the audience opted to flank their tour bus, only to find out what a huge bunch of snooty dickheads they were… served ’em right). Get your refreshments and use the bathroom but try and catch at least a little of their set.
1990’s fashion revivalists Western Star were a fitting opener. Their new album was produced by the 97s’ own Ken Bethea and you can hear it in their sound; sort of a twangy power pop with some garage leanings and southern harmonies. Learning that they relocated to Baltimore earned them a few extra points in my book. A heckler repeatedly yelled “TEETH! SHOW US YOUR TEETH!” between songs. Maybe it was an inside joke or he was new to heckling; either way the band obliged several times with big gaping smiles.
The 97’s were fucking great. Between them and the Pixies last year I’m beginning to think bands approaching and/or past middle age are the shows to go to. They played with the passion and energy of groups half their age, with 20+ years of experience on top of it. They were unbelievably tight and looked to be having a blast. At Rhett’s behest most of us were on our feet dancing and the front row even propped their drinks and elbows on the stage. The set list spanned their career with a good mix of greatest hits-type tunes (“Doreen,” “King of All of the World,” “Rollerskate Skinny”), deeper cuts (“Streets of Where I’m From,” “Stoned”) and a few Merle Haggard songs, who’d passed away the day before. Rhett gave a shout out to local radio station 98.7 the Freq, claiming the reason their tour stopped in State College at all was due to overwhelming listener demand.
Bizarre incident of the evening: toward the end of their set a burly dude with a beer walked down to the stage and stood with his middle finger pointed at the band for a solid few minutes. Like the “teeth” guy we assumed he knew them and it was some sort of weird joke, but after a few minutes he angrily exchanged words with Ken then left via the emergency exit by the stage, followed by Ken’s guitar tech and a few security guards. No idea what was going on there but they wrapped things up moments later with “Four Leaf Clover,” a hell of a closer even without the female duet. They returned a few minutes later for a short encore with “Victoria” transitioning seamlessly into “Timebomb” to end the evening altogether. If that guy’s antics lead to the set being cut short as it indeed appeared to be, and us missing out on something like “Melt Show” or “Nightclub” then I hope security beat the shit out of him.
Ten years ago this week I proposed to my best girl in the bar where we had our first date by singing the 97’s “Question.” It doesn’t appear to be a song they play much these days so we counted ourselves lucky when it was the first ballad of the evening. A highlight for sure.
We popped down to legendary basement bar Zeno’s for a few post-show beers. It’s a State College institution and one of the finer places to drink a few pints downtown, especially during university breaks when those pesky students go home. The evenings range from cramped to crowded with a mix of drunken 21 year old idiots putting scores of drinks on Dad’s credit card, and locals who want them all to go the fuck away so we can enjoy our beer in peace, or hear one of the decent satellite radio stations above their screaming.
Food is available from the Corner Room restaurant upstairs – typical & tasty pub fare but beer is the reason to visit Zeno’s. Their 21 drafts (and countless bottles) rotate a good mix of styles, rarities and aged brews, and always includes the rye ale brewed for them locally by Otto’s, a great standby and anytime drinker if nothing else looks particularly tempting. They also feature an “Around the World in 80 Beers” passport and beer festivals of all kinds (we attended an awesome pay-as-you-go cask fest one year where the bar was lined completely with fresh barrels, replenished as they emptied, with a few beers unique to that event alone).
Their Friday night happy hour offers half price Pennsylvania micros from 9-11, a nice accompaniment to the regular lineup of live music ranging from bluegrass (King Cotton Rounders) and Americana (Pure Cane Sugar) to 80’s/90’s cover bands (Spider Kelly) and PA’s best rockabilly trio the Ultra Kings. It’s one of the state’s best beer spots though much more enjoyable during the day or an evening during school breaks, unless you’re into large groups of loud, obnoxious undergrads. The bathroom graffiti is as legendary as the beer selection, covering the entirety of the walls and offering a disturbing glimpse into the area’s vast array of frat boy douchery (bar tours… oh so many bar tours), with an occasional slice of veritable wit or humor. Sample philosophy: “Alcohol won’t solve your problems but neither will water or milk.” Retort: “Unless your problems are that you’re dehydrated or calcium deficient.”
Summary: a night out with my best gal, some aging rockers and a wealth of good beer. It doesn’t get much better than that.
August 1, 2016 § Leave a comment
May’s weekend in the Finger Lakes with my wife was my fourth trek to the region in the last six months, lending more credibility to the notion that it’s like a second home. It’s not drastically different from central PA, full of beautiful wide open spaces and stunning glimpses into nature with an abundance of available outdoor recreation, so it’s really a testament to the fine food & beer that we’re willing to make the drive so often. Lake Seneca has been our go-to for many years and it was hard to imagine visiting the area without hitting all of our favorites, but discovering just how good Prison City Pub & Brewery is on Man Voyage in April gave us proper motivation to explore elsewhere. It was about damn time to head slightly west of the norm and explore Lake Keuka’s brewery scene.
We found Brewery of Broken Dreams just outside of Hammondsport, a short drive down one of those back roads that looks like it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nestled in the basement of a historic stone country house, the tasting room features a cozy corner fire place, a few seats and a long wooden bar. One of two kind and knowledgeable bartenders welcomed us promptly despite being fairly busy and offered a tasting of any six beers for $5 ($6 to keep the glass, which we did). It’s a bold move for any brewery to not have an IPA on tap but we didn’t mind at all. Most were lower in ABV but quite flavorful, our favorites being New Moon (dunkel weizen style), Floating Leaf (brown porter, very unique take on the style) and the Wise (old ale). We paid $1 extra to sample an additional special draft of Triskaidekaphobia, a strong ale brewed with 13 ingredients exclusively for Friday the 13th and not available for takeout due to its limited quantity, so of course it was my favorite. There is no food available but they encourage you to BYOS (bring your own snacks). We purchased a growler to bring home the Wise ale – we don’t need another in our collection but couldn’t resist the crying loon logo.
The turnoff for County Road 76 leading up the trail isn’t well marked or particularly inviting so we mistakenly drove alongside the lake on Rt 54A for 10 minutes before we realized it wasn’t going anywhere, wondering how much some of the lakeside properties sell for despite their dilapidated states. We backtracked and enjoyed a much nicer view when we caught up with the trail en route to Steuben Brewing, a family-run farm brewery in Hammondsport. The unassuming shed-like outward appearance gives way to an inviting albeit loud and somewhat cramped tasting room and spacious back deck with a sprawling view of the lake. Coco’s Cafe Food Truck was parked next to the back deck and offers a nice array of burgers, sandwiches and snacks. We had a few sliders (chicken & turkey) and split an order of sweet potato fries with honey mustard, all for about $10 and more than enough for lunch. They also advertised Pale Ale Cupcakes made with Steuben beer we later regretted not trying.
The beer listings were a bit chaotic, in three different places on two separate chalk boards, confusing us as to what was available. To be fair though, they were extremely busy and it would have been a challenge to keep everything promptly updated. Someone tended to me immediately and was more than helpful, setting us up with a four beer sampler of NY Pils, Hometown Brown ale, Double IPA and Belgian Blonde. They brew everything with at least 20% New York malt and hops and it’s all got that small batch freshness to it, the Double IPA in particular standing out. I see old fashioned popcorn carts popping up (bad pun absolutely intended) in more breweries and Steuben is no exception, offering up a fresh batch just in time for a post-lunch snack. A duo was prepping for live music just as we were leaving, to the sound of some drunk moron repeatedly yelling out for “Truckin'”. Real original dude, I’ve definitely never heard that song before. At least wait for them to finish setting up before yelling out your absurdly cliched requests.
Abandon Brewing had our favorite atmosphere all weekend. A big converted and weatherproofed barn done up with string lights, resting on a sizeable farm with a view of their hop vine trellises on one side (naked this time of year) and the lake on the other. There’s also a large pavilion and deck outside though the cold weather prevented us from enjoying either of those. The tasting room inside has a nice wraparound bar, plenty of picnic tables for shared seating and is all watched over by a resident yellow lab, making the rounds and hoping for complimentary peanut scraps to be dropped. They tempted us with way too many delicious sounding beers, forcing us to pay for two samples in addition to our flight of six. Nice variety of styles, divided into flagship and Woodshed (special & seasonal) drafts, and a heavy focus on Belgians: Peppercorn saison, Belgian Golden Strong, Abbey Ale and Belgian Rye were among our favorites, though the Black Rye IPA and Berliner Weiss stood out as well. I was debating the last beer to finish assembling our sampler when someone approached me and strongly suggested I get the porter. It was less a suggestion and more a forceful demand, practically bullying me into choosing it, arguing that it’s “the best beer I’ve ever tasted and you’d be a damn fool not to get it.” It was a perfectly good porter but nothing about it made me feel my life would be more empty if I hadn’t tried it. Way to oversell it, guy.
We made our way into Penn Yan and checked into the Colonial Motel for a change of clothes before dinner. They stole my wife’s heart immediately with their resident feline, greeting us upon check in and roaming the office. Simple digs and much of the furniture is dated (save for the newly remodeled bathroom) but as per usual, we don’t care. It’s quiet and clean, the owner is friendly and there’s a killer view of the lake from the shared porch. There’s also a stone patio out front with lounge chairs and our queen room included a kitchenette, all for under $100 without the required two night minimum so many hotels in this region require, even in the off season.
We stopped at LyonSmith Brewing in downtown Penn Yan before heading to Geneva for dinner. I couldn’t pass up a brewery specializing in beers of the United Kingdom, some of my favorite styles. LyonSmith is fittingly located in a basement on a revitalized section of Water Street downtown, and does well to capture the vibe of a UK pub while putting their own spin on things. Interestingly enough the owner shared with us his choice to focus on these particular styles didn’t come from an inspirational visit to the UK but rather a desire for consistancy: most breweries offer a worldly range of ales & lagers, inevitably experimenting with a Belgian style or two, etc. While I’ll never complain about variety, these styles are their forte and LyonSmith is dedicated to perfecting them. We’d done a fair amount of tasting already, still had dinner and late-night cocktails to get to so we settled for splitting a pint of Rylie pale ale, and I was immediatley reminded of the great beers we enjoyed on tour throughout the UK & Ireland the previous year. The English bands on the sound system were a nice touch (the Pogues and Madness in particular). LyonSmith chose their specialty well; I only wish we’d had time for more.
We didn’t expect Kindred Fare to be located in a strip mall, though that tainted its mystique only until we stepped inside. Expansive but minimally decorated with brick and aged barn wood, it’s an inviting space if slightly noisy. The hostess offered us two seats at the counter with a view of the kitchen, which I’ve always been leery of, wondering how the staff feels about customers watching their every move but she talked us into it. Just after we placed our drink order one of the cooks slid us a few complimentary slices of tasty ramp flatbread, effectively killing my concern for the kitchen staff’s feelings in lieu of getting free stuff. The southern style half chicken satisfied my weekly fried chicken craving with an upscale touch of hot honey sauce and jalapenos. My wife enjoyed her salmon as well. The craft cocktail menu was temping but I chose one of the pre-fixed “Tap & Spirit” pairings, with a 10 oz local beer and local spirit for $8 (Naked Dove doppelbock and Myer Farm rye whiskey). The bill wasn’t cheap but definitely worth the splurge.
It was dark by the time we arrived in downtown Geneva, after a quick coffee at a nearby Tim Horton’s, the Dunkin Donuts of Canada… alas, there was no better coffee to be found. Lake Drum Brewing specializes in sours and ciders, spins vinyl on a turntable behind the bar (they also decorate with it) and has a dim, enticing atmosphere I’m sure we would have enjoyed more another night. This one, however, was marred by an overly boisterous group of the bar’s regular patrons, dressed to the nines like they just came from a crowning ceremony for the Douchebag-of-the-Month award at some pretentious country club, throwing elbows and crowding everyone else out of getting served, several of them shouting “What are all of these people doing in OUR bar? This is OUR bar!” By the time I wedged in to order I picked a sour and cider at random, neither of which were memorable but several selections are guest taps, so they might not have even been theirs. Bars get crowded and sometimes your only option is to stand and get bumped into, but it’s another thing entirely when the locals are visibly unhappy with your presence and trying their damndest to force you out… mission accomplished, you bunch of asshats. None of that is Lake Drum’s fault but I’d only give it a second go-around early enough in the day to avoid another shitstorm like that. Here’s hoping it’s not a regular thing.
The next morning we headed east to hit the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, a fixture on our visits here we weren’t about to forego just because we were on another lake. Most farmer’s markets are pretty similar but there’s something special about Ithaca – probably just my sentimental side recalling the many visits with my wife early in our relationship but I enjoy this one more than most. Sure, there are a few pitfalls: the parking is a complete pain in the ass and the stench of patchouli occasionally overwhelms the nostrils when a particularly potent hippie walks by, but the grounds are stunning with hand painted benches and a roomy pier outside. Folk/bluegrass musicians setup throughout the pavilions, which host vendors offering everything from fresh fruits & vegetables to meats & cheeses, wine & ciders, art, crafts and pottery and a delicious array of ethnic food. We’re often unformfortably full after squeezing in Khmer Angkor Cambodian, Thai Palace, a cuban sandwich, falafel, Dennis’ Homemade Ice Cream, apple cider donuts and/or any number of other things. The pièce de résistance, and a reason in itself for us to drive 2.5 hours to the market is the breakfast burrito at Solaz. It’s easy to find – just look for the longest line. I’ve no idea what they do to make it so magical but it’s hands down the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever eaten, including anything I’ve had in the southwest. I could go on but I don’t want to oversell it the way that guy did with the Abandon porter.
The Ithaca Commons is a pedestrian mall, recently renovated with all new landscaping & local art and occasionally featuring street vendors and performers. It’s full of unique shops but we go mainly for Petrune and Angry Mom Records. Petrune is a vintage boutique carrying clothing and accessories dating back to the Victorian era alongside vintage style reproductions. Among my favorite items I’ve found are my 1960’s brown houndstooth tweed jacket ($30 in near mint condition) and a wooden sea captain hand-carved in Italy, whom we named Ciro and put in my son’s
nursery sophisticated young gentleman’s room. Prices are fair, especially given their location and they’re usually spinning decent tunes (early 60’s Atlantic Records soul interspersed with Phil Collins and Hall & Oates? It’s like they stole my iPod).
Speaking of decent tunes, Angry Mom carries on the tradition of fine record stores like the ones depicted in movies like High Fidelity, Pretty in Pink and Empire Records, and written about on the Aging Cynic. If you were lucky enough to grow up in the glory days of these establishments and they weren’t among your favorite places to be, you obviously lack good taste and kindly click here to go spend time among your own kind. There aren’t many of these places left to sift through a dozen haphazardly organized 7″ records out of sheer boredom, buy a used CD for $4 because the liner notes are slightly warped (Night Marchers’ See You in Magic) or discover a new band playing over the sound system and immediately march to the counter to ask who it is and what aisle you can find it in (the Neanderthals’ Latest Menace to the Human Race). I struggle to remember which day is trash day but memories like that are vivid as they come. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said it: patronize and cherish these places before they’re gone for good and Amazon is all we have left.
The only thing I enjoy shopping for as much as vintage clothing and records is alcohol, and Finger Lakes Beverage is among the finest purveyors of the elixir of the gods (beer only, but it takes nearly an hour to get out of the place as it is… liquor and wine would make it an all-day affair). The beauty of FLB is in both their selection and availability: hundreds of craft beers from all over the world are neatly organized by region and able to be purchased by the case, six-pack or single bottle. If that’s not enough there are a dozen draft beers for growler fills, bombers and glassware, snacks and soda. We typically do a mix of singles bottles, leave with a case’s worth (including a few bombers) and spend between $50-60. The staff has always been knowledgeable and friendly, quick to answer questions or make suggestions. One of the finest beer outlets I’ve come across anywhere.
Ithaca Beer Company has exploded in recent years, growing exponentially and constantly being distributed to new markets as a result. I’m either showing my age or sounding like some dumb hipster but we’ve been visiting long enough to remember its former location in a one-room building just off of Rt. 13 (now Green Tree Garden Supply), manned by a lone bartender and offering free tours pretty much whenever you wanted them. Many was the time we’d be the only ones in the place, chatting about beer, listening to Hank Williams and sampling everything on tap while mulling over our purchases. The times they are a-changin’, and while we miss the simplistic charm of the former location it’s largely been for the better. They built a massive brewery & warehouse down the hill behind the old building and added a full bar and restaurant. The beer is as good as it’s ever been (though we’re both bitter about the apparent discontinuation of our two favorites, spring seasonal Ground Break and winter seasonal Cold Front), and like any good brewpub they feature a few draft only selections in the bar. We shared a few Belgian Golden ales and cask IPAs with locally sourced and seasonal (of course) cheddar burger and garden pizza. A damn good lunch that more than filled us up for the ride home.
They need to build bridges across these lakes. It’s going to get harder to decide which direction to take our day trips in if we keep discovering worthwhile places on each one. Guess we’ll just have to take them more often.
June 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
I intended to start fresh with this blog- E.G. despite the fact that I’ve been to our local Elk Creek Cafe & Aleworks a few dozen times I’ll just write an entry next time I go, and include a few snippets of info from past visits. I’ve stuck to that plan for the most part but unlike Elk Creek, Prague is not a 30 minute drive away. I’ve no idea when I’ll get there again and we had too much good stuff to not reminisce about and share. I’ll be recalling some of our trips to Europe as time allows, starting with the City of 1000 Spires: the first time I took my beautiful wife abroad, and the trip that cemented my love for the pilsner.
By 2009 my wife and I had done a fair amount of roadtripping around the Mid-Atlantic US & Canada together but I was anxious to take her on her first trip abroad. Her family’s background is a mix of several European nationalities, but primarily Czech. Her grandfather actually came over from the former Czechoslovakia, so of anywhere in Europe the Czech Republic would be the place to start to discover her roots… even if “discovering her roots” meant nothing more than, as always, eating a lot of food and drinking a lot of beer.
Alright, I’ll come clean… we cared less about discovering her family’s roots and more about the birthplace of pilsner. It’s an under appreciated style in the US, likely because the ongoing fascination in the craft beer industry is “big” beer, experimenting and pushing the envelope to see how high we can get the ABV%. I’m all for that but there’s something to be said for tradition, especially in this case. The beauty of the pilsner is that it’s often very sessionable, usually not breaking above 5% ABV, but still flavorful and thirst quenching. The style was born in Plzen, Czechoslovakia, and all of the great imports we have in the US – Pilsner Urquell, Czechvar and Staropramen come from the Czech Republic. There’s no better pilsner than the one you’ll have here – they love their beer, matter of fact it’s their national drink, often cheaper in restaurants than water or coffee. We learned an old Czech proverb from a beer menu – “A great beer can be judged by only one sip, but it’s better to be thouroghly sure.” What a great motto to live by. Budweiser was also born here and is still readily available, though it’s called Budvar and beats the shit out of the yellow piss water we know in the states.
I didn’t take as many notes as I’d have liked or keep track of every tiny place we ducked in for a drink or snack – a trip to Europe’s not as easy as driving a few hours to Philadelphia or New York, and I didn’t want to spend the whole week with my head buried in a notebook. Hopefully my memory is sufficiently jogged by the near 1000 photos we took.
The Czech Republic is a great place to start exploring Europe if you’re put off by the shitty exchange rate between the Euro and US Dollar. Euros are widely accepted but their primary currency is still the Czech crown and the exchange rate is very favorable – currently 17 crowns to 1 US dollar. Or in terms more easily understood, there were signs outside of most every bar and restaurant advertising Pilsner Urquell for 35 crowns – that’s a half litre of beer for just under two bucks.
I’ve no basis for comparison, but our experience at the Red Chair was so fantastic I’m surprised it’s not ranked higher on TripAdvisor (somewhere in the 20’s out of 350). It started at the airport – our flight got in at 7:30 AM and we figured we’d be exhausted so we’d arranged for an airport pickup. I expected a taxi or random hired driver but the hotel manager himself was there to meet us with a big sign and a smile. His name is Premisyl and he’s possibly the best hotel manager I’ve come across anywhere. He was born to be in customer service, and even if the room had been subpar (it wasn’t), I would have overlooked it just to have his services. I remember more about his hospitality than the hotel itself.
Premisyl is a friendly guy who made us feel like we were staying in his home. The fee for airport transfer was $30 US and well worth it given what a maze Prague’s highway system is. He lugged as many of our bags to the car as he could carry, and offered to take us on a private driving tour around the city at no extra charge (he gets bonus points for listening to Nirvana’s “In Utero” in the car). He drove us past some major attractions, then by the nearby hospital and local grocery in case we needed either.
Between the traffic and our sightseeing drive we missed the Red Chair’s breakfast by about 15 minutes and most of it was packed up. Premisyl brought the personal coffee maker out of his office and made us two cups while we got checked in. I’d booked online about six weeks before we left the states and got a rate of $75 a night, which isn’t bad considering its location in the center of Old Town (Prague 1) and proximity to Old Town Square and Charles Bridge (a casual five minute stroll to each).
The hotel has 15 rooms, most of them up a small flight of steps away from the main building. Ours was quite roomy by European standards, with a nice screenless window we could open to get the morning air and look out onto the street below. There was a nice mini bar fridge beneath the desk stocked with sodas and Czech beers, and everything was fairly priced. Bombers of Staropramen and Pilsner Urquell were three Euros each, only slightly higher than you’d pay out somewhere as opposed to an American mini bar fridge, where a bottle of Heineken might run you the price of a six pack.
The bathroom was a nice size as well, with enough room for both of us to move around. The stand-up shower in the corner was small but the amazing water pressure was enough to make up for it. There was a fixture with slats and a heat switch that spanned the height of the shower – it took us a few minutes to figure out it was a towel warmer. Exiting the shower to a warm towel waiting first thing in the morning… sweet Jesus, that was nice.
I’ve had to debunk the European bathroom myth for someone every time I’ve returned home from a trip across the pond: the bidet is optional, and there will be toilet paper in your bathroom. And speaking of the bathroom, European coffee is much stronger than American coffee, even the stuff we label as “Italian Roast” or “French Roast.” Whatever you typically drink at home, cut it in half until your body gets used to it or you’ll spend a good portion of your first morning in the bathroom.
Much like German and Austrian, Czech food is very heavy. Every time we get together with my wife’s grandfather and dare to bring up a recent dinner of tacos or pad thai, we get sternly reminded, “That’s not real food! Real food is meat and potatoes!” He would be very happy and well-fed in Prague. That’s not to say the food wasn’t good; we didn’t have a bad meal anywhere, and the portions were consistently generous, but by the time we got home I don’t think I’d ever craved a salad so badly.
Our first meal was mid-morning breakfast from a street food cart in Wenceslas Square. They had quite the selection of sausages, or you could go vegetarian with an artery-clogging fried cheese sandwich with mayo. Would you like a draft beer with your breakfast at 10:30 AM? Hell yes, you needn’t have asked.
It can be difficult to differentiate between authentic restaurants and tourist traps that cater to unadventurous Americans (sadly the T.G.I. Fridays up the street from our hotel was packed with said Americans in their sports logo sweatshirts and track pants every time we walked by). We asked Premisyl to recommend a place where locals eat and he sent us to Restaurace U Knihovny in Prague 1, down a side street a few blocks from the Charles Bridge. We walked into a café/bar and were led by a hostess downstairs to a lounge with plenty of booth seating, some nice artwork on the walls and a small bar with a selection of liquors and two Staropramen drafts, light and dark.
Knihovny is where we truly experienced the essence of Czech dining, as we’d read about and even Premisyl had described. Service is slow and wait staff are blunt and to-the-point. We found many Czechs to be flattered when we at least attempted the greetings and pleasantries of their native tongue; we’d get a friendly smile and a chuckle when we’d make a half-passable attempt at dobry den (“Hello”), or the more challenging na shledanou (“Goodbye”). Knihovny, however, was an exception. Our waiter was a dead ringer for Vigo the Carpathian in both looks and personality. He stomped around from table to table, grunting even to the locals, scribbling down orders and slamming down plates. It appeared he was allergic to happiness but none of the locals were batting an eye. Rebecca ordered a schnitzel with potato dumplings and I got baked chicken with ham, pineapple and some sort of mystery sauce. Everything was delicious but very heavy – we weren’t hungry again until the next morning. Both the light and dark Staropramen tasted unbelievably fresh and we noticed on the menu that workers from the Staropramen brewery personally deliver their kegs and check their system once a week to ensure peak freshness.
Tipping took some getting used to as well. Rather than our standard of 20% it’s customary to simply round up; if your dinner bill is 260 crowns, you round up to 300 and the waiter keeps the difference. The kicker is they don’t drop the bill at the table and walk away, they total it up in front of you and wait while you fumble around, sifting through money you’re not familiar with trying to find the right denominations. Most who waited on us were patient but I don’t think Vigo the Carpathian has patience for much.
On the grounds of the Strahov Monastery is the Strahov Monastic Brewery, which sees its fair share of tourists but it’s definitely for a reason. The restaurant inside is all very dark, ornate wood with Czech beer decor and a good view of the bronze brewing vats in the main bar area, and the two-tier patio outside overlooks the monastery grounds. We seated ourselves and waited awhile for a server but once we got our orders in the beer and food came pretty quick. We shared plates of goose in dark beer sauce, chicken, dumplings, potato pancakes and an assortment of dark & amber lagers and dunkler weizenbock.
We got hungry during a late night walk around the cobblestone streets of Mala Strana (Lesser Town, a baroque quarter wrapped around the foot of Prague Castle) and ducked into Bar Bar, a modern looking basement restaurant situated in an alley much too small for any car to drive through. It’s got a nice long bar with a good assortment of liquors filling the glass shelves behind, dim pendulum lights and a mix of decent indie rock and not so decent European techno over the sound system. We were in around 10:00 PM and they had a small snack menu and a few daily chalkboard specials. Lemon pancakes with lemon & mint sorbet paired with a few Staropramen lights was a damn good late night snack. The service was quicker than most in Prague though there weren’t many people in there.
Cafe Savoy in Prague 5, south of Kampa Park and west just off the Most Legii bridge made a nice stop for lunch and a few baked goods after spending half a day walking around the city. It’s a big, bright open space with a smoking balcony and remarkably detailed Renaissance ceiling, original to the building and all renovations over the years have been done around it. Service was a pleasant change, snappy and upbeat. On our waiter’s recommendation I ordered the Frankfurter Savoy, which he described as a hot dog with horseradish and spicy mustard. What I received is the fanciest variation on the hot dog I’ve ever had – four long & skinny franks that spilled out over the rolls, four silver condiment bowls with horseradish, spicy mustard, shredded cheese and a mystery chutney, served on a silver platter complete with lid and fancy serving fork. I was so into it I can’t even remember what my wife had to eat, and I’m still kicking myself in the ass for not taking a picture of it. We got an apple tart and some other assorted baked goods to go for our walk back to the hotel.
The farthest we ventured for any meal was Pivovarsky Klub in Prague 8. Figuring out the public transit route was a pain in the ass but I would’ve hated to miss out on this place. The food was great and they had beer on tap that we didn’t see anywhere else. You enter a bar & bottle shop where you can have a few drinks and admire their impressive selection of European bottled beers or head down to the cellar bar with pub tables for some traditional Czech grub. Of the six beers on tap two were from Prague, three were from other breweries in outerlying areas of the country and one was from Germany. Not wanting to miss out on the beers we’d never heard of and may never have again, we ordered most of the smaller brewery selections and the German lager, and they were all unbelievably fresh and delicious. Better yet was the option of a smaller size than the traditional half liter, so the discomfort of having to take a piss the whole metro ride back was kept to a minimum. For dinner I had something called “Grandpa’s Beans,” a giant bowl of sausage, beans and more spices than I thought the Czechs to be capable of. It was tasty enough for me to once again not remember what my wife ordered.
The Red Chair’s breakfast spread was as good as any I’ve had in a hotel. Fresh fruit, yogurt, crackers and Nutella, juice, coffee (see the aforementioned warning), even a meat and cheese platter. It was included with the room so we took advantage most mornings but hit The Choco Cafe once just to branch out a bit. It’s next door to the Red Chair and though not cheap, definitely worth a breakfast splurge at least once. We both had the espresso even after our coffee mishap the first morning, and some croissants with melted chocolate for dipping – it even came with a few fresh berries.
Two things we discovered after several nights out drinking in Prague: 1) after ordering your first round it will likely take your server a LONG time to get back to you, and 2) if you’ve got a tab running, ask for your check when you order your last drink because when the server does finally come back and see a near-empty glass, they may just keep bringing you beers until you tell them to stop. Normally I’d say the latter isn’t a bad thing but it doesn’t help if you’re trying to leave.
If all you think of when you hear “pilsner” are Miller Lite commercials, with that “triple hops brewed” advertisement bullshit, put it out of your mind immediately. Since you’re reading TAC at all I’m betting you’ve had a decent microbrewed pilsner (Victory’s Prima Pils is a great example of the style), but even then you can’t fully grasp the deliciousness of a draft Czech pilsner in a Prague pub. I was amazed at the lack of monotony from beer to beer, how each had its own distinguishing characteristics and none tasted like the one before it.
It sounds juvenile but one of the best things about drinking in Prague (and Europe in general) is imbibing in public. To clarify, this doesn’t mean getting loaded and running through the streets like an asshole. Alcohol is more integrated into the way of life, and not seen as a demonic, forbidden substance the way it sometimes is in the US. The legal drinking age is 19 but there were nights we saw teenagers getting served. Sure there are still some drunks and bums scrounging for change to buy a bottle, but you’ll find that anywhere.
Case in point: Kampa Park was a leisurely 20 minute stroll across the Charles Bridge from the Red Chair and we ducked down the stairs more than once to avoid the mid-day crowds and catch a breath of fresh air. Our first day we happened upon a beer hut, for lack of a better description: it was a little wooden shack big enough for one person to operate the keg inside – you gave them your 35 crowns and walked off with a hefty plastic cup of pilsner. Given our strict liquor laws here in the US (especially in PA), it’s liberating to walk through the park or along the banks of the Vltava river and sip a beer the same way you would a soda or lemonade.
Vejvodu was the smokiest beer hall we drank in. European bars and restaurants must have been built with smokers in mind, because they’re all much better ventilated and the smoke generally didn’t bother us. Vejvodu was an exception. A waiter asked if we were eating dinner or drinking, and when we told him we just wanted a few beers he led us through the restaurant with table seating into a cloud of smoke in the back room with bigger, shared tables. There were advertisements for “American Red Bull and Vodka Cocktail” – don’t attribute that vile crap to us, man. That’s embarrassing.
This was also where the aforementioned “waiting for your server to come back” was most problematic. After our initial round of Kozels (local dark pilsner) we waited nearly 30 mins for him to come back and see if we wanted another. The bar itself was nice, with a very old-world European charm but since the service was so slow and we could practically blow smoke rings through the air without the use of a cigarette, we decided to move on.
U Medvidku was the only place we felt completely unwelcome and unwanted as Americans. Not by the other patrons; they couldn’t have given a shit, but the bartenders and servers went out of their way to make sure we knew they were ignoring us intentionally. I’d still recommend it and even go back myself, either because I’m a moron or the beer was just that good… probably a bit of both. The place itself is great – it dates back to the 1400’s and is the only hotel in Prague with a brewery in the ground floor. We read in the menu it was also the first pub in town to serve the original Budweiser. Now they’ve got about a half dozen of their own on tap in a bar adjacent to the room with their big bronze brewery tanks, which you get a good view of through the front window. The Old Gott and 1466 were particularly good.
The smoke was a little lighter than Vejvodu and the barroom had the perfect dim, laid-back atmosphere we look for. We’d have stayed and tried everything on tap if it hadn’t taken 20 minutes to get our first beer, almost as long to get our second and about 15 minutes of standing at the bar, staring the bartender right in the eyes before he gave us our bill. They weren’t shy about making us wait or sneering at us, but we took it with a grain of salt and didn’t let it ruin our night. The beer still tasted great.
The crown jewel of drinking in Prague is the tankovna, or tank pub. They serve tank (unpasteurized) Pilsner Urquell, delivered in small batches from the brewery right to the pub and it tastes unlike any beer you’ve ever had. U Zeleneho Stomu is two blocks from the Red Chair and we visited almost every night for a tank P.U. The lights were a little bright for our taste but everyone was friendly and it was a much welcome change of atmosphere after being at U Medvidku. We didn’t try any dinners but they had an appetizer of local cheese with smoked paprika and crackers that was tasty enough to accompany our beers.
Tourist attractions aren’t usually on my “must-see” list, but I’d have hated to have missed walking on the Charles Bridge. Early morning, just after sunrise and evening after sundown are the best times because you can take in the views without hoards of people crowding you out, but the peak hours have their advantages as well – local artists selling everything from photographs and paintings to handmade jewelry, magnets and keepsakes, performers of all kinds including musicians, tarot card readers, caricaturists and puppeteers (marionettes are everywhere in Prague). The baroque statues and architecture are fantastic but there was plenty else worth looking at, like the sectioned-off booth for arm wrestling contests with locals, or the stairway down to Kampa Island & Park where there are several installations of David Cerny street art and the aforementioned beer hut.
During our first nights’ stroll across the bridge we were flanked by a celebration below in Kampa Park. Colored projection lights, streamers and a four-piece orchestra playing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as we took our first steps up from Stare Mestro and spied Prague Castle in the distance. I’ve no idea what they were celebrating but it was a quintessential European experience, that right-place-at-the-right-time fleeting moment that makes you put the camera down, pull your gal in for a kiss and savor every little part of it… then run to find a WC because those beers you had with dinner are just hitting you.
Speaking of David Cerny, his sculptures are everywhere throughout the city, some out in the open but also tucked into crevices or hanging from balconies. I wasn’t familiar with his work but really dug seeing his eccentric pieces poking out at us in the most random places. Our favorites was “Piss,” a fountain depicting two naked dudes with moving hips and genitalia pissing into a pond. We read you could submit text messages to the sculpture somehow that would be spelled out in the water and subsequently pissed on but we never figured out how to go about it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t regret looking into that more. It sounds pretty awesome.
Petrin Tower sits on a hillside off of Strahovska just west side of the Charles Bridge. It looks like a smaller version of the Eiffel Tower but because of the size of Petrin Hill the tower is at a higher altitude (there you are – proof that I do occasionally read and remember travel facts that don’t involve food or beer). Petrin Hill is steep and rather treacherous in spots so we grabbed the funicular to the top. I’m not typically against a little exercise but we’d been walking all over Prague for three days – the ten minute ride up was a welcome respite, especially considering we still had to climb the tower steps. They have an express elevator to the top but the line was unreal, and we weren’t going to be that lazy. The climb up the narrow spiral staircase is a bitch but the view is more than worth it; you can see all of Prague (and understand why it’s nicknamed “city of 1000 spires”) and the Vlatava River winding through it. There’s a gift shop and cafe in the first level of the tower so when you get back down you can reward yourself with a beer. Seriously, I love this country.
The Jewish Quarter and Old Jewish Cemetery were quite moving. The Pinkas Memorial inside the cemetery grounds has the names of Bohemian and Moravian victims of the Shoah inscribed on the interior walls of the synagogue, and there were a few similar to my wife’s maiden name (her family changed the spelling when they immigrated so it’s possible they were her relatives). The Children’s Drawings from the Terezin Ghetto 1942-1944 exhibit was heartbreaking to see. Terezin was essentially a stopover on the way to concentration and death camps and it was interesting to see children’s interpretations of those conditions – some as dreadful as you’d expect, others surprisingly uplifting. It wasn’t the cheeriest way to spend an afternoon but as close as she’ll likely come to feeling a connection with that part of her heritage.
We walked up the hill to the Prague Castle grounds a few times. You can see the castle from most everywhere in the city, even at night when they light it up. We chose to tour the 600 year old Saint Vitus Cathedral instead of the castle, mostly because the grounds themselves are picturesque enough but also because centuries-old European churches are some of the only places I can get in touch with my spiritual side, and even cynics can benefit from that once in awhile. The detail of the architecture is astounding inside and out; you could go back every day for a week and see something you missed before. Same with the Grotto Wall in the Palace Gardens, made of artificial stalactites with faces, serpents and other creatures hidden in between.
The Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square is worth seeing if only because it’s the oldest working one of its kind left in the world, but the “Walk of the Apostles” hourly clockwork show wasn’t nearly as exciting as I’d hoped. Moving sculptures pop out of the clock and strike the time but you can barely see them, and they barely move. I was more fascinated by the array of different architectural styles in the square.
There were other sights we took in, food we ate, beers we imbibed, and streets we ambled down but I’ll be damned if I can remember them all. One of the best things about being abroad is walking everywhere, following the locals, discovering little nuances on your own that you wouldn’t otherwise, case in point that unadvertised beer hut we happened upon in Kampa Park. It became our mid-afternoon routine to grab a pilsner and stroll down along Devil’s Channel, and we’d have never known about it if we hadn’t just followed some random dudes heading back to the park for refills. This will always be among my favorite trips because it’s the first time my wife and I went abroad together, but also because Prague is gorgeous and inexpensive. I’d recommend it for anyone’s first trip to Europe.
We took almost 900 photos. Here are 30: