Otto’s Pub & Brewery: a Quintessential Central PA Brewpub

October 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

Otto's

Photo pirated from elsewhere on the internet

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.

Old 97’s at the State Theater, State College PA

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.

Old 97's, State Theater

Photo pirated from Google search.  Mine were all blurry.

Keuka Lake, NY

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.

NYC: the Lower East Side

May 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

I’ve been to NYC maybe a half dozen times, mostly on family trips before I was old enough to do anything cool.  Any visits after my 21st birthday were for shows at the Bowery Ballroom or Mercury Lounge, when I had little extra money to spend so dinner was always the cheapest pizza slices and beer pitchers I could find.

Friends I made while traveling the UK last year planned a February visit, and I was anxious to catch up with them while simultaneously digging a bit deeper into at least one section of a city I’ve barley skimmed the surface of.  Since they had a full week to explore before I arrived, they gave me the option of choosing where to meet, and I instantly selected the only neighborhood I’d ever had any reason to feel drawn to: the rock ‘n roll haven of the Lower East Side.

Driving three hours to Secaucus Junction in New Jersey and taking the train into Penn Station proved much easier than my last visit, when my friends and I were stupid enough to drive into Manhattan and sort through overpriced parking options ourselves.  $25 overnight parking and a 15 minute ride in was cheap and easy.  A quick walk down Fashion Avenue (good for ogling if you’re into highfalutin garb, good for a few laughs if you’re not) to 34th St-Herald Square station put me on the M Train downtown, just another few bucks and 10 minutes to Essex St Station near the Comfort Inn LES.  I planned on eating and drinking nothing but NYC so I broke my “go local” rule for the $85 price tag (practically unheard of for any respectable digs in Manhattan, even in February) which also included breakfast.  It’s a swell place – friendly, well kept, central to everything I was interested in and surprisingly quiet. They even gave me a free upgrade to a king room.

Before I met my friends I took myself on a quick walking tour of some music landmarks and street art.  Plenty of people feel they were born in the wrong decade and like any good punk rocker, I always felt I belonged in 1977 New York. I passed by Albert’s Garden and Extra Place where the Ramones’ first and third LP album covers were photographed, the former CBGB and Joey Ramone Place on the Bowery and some additional murals throughout the LES and Tompkins Square Park.  I also stopped by Veniero’s on 11th St to pick up some desserts for my lovely wife, who was supposed to accompany me but forced to stay home and nurse herself and our little guy back to health.  Surely some cakes and pastries would help.  I got a mini NY cheesecake, blackberry custard cup, mini napoleon and blood orange torte from their ridiculously large selection and only spent about $12, much less than I’d anticipated.

I’ve heard people debate Gray’s Papaya vs Papaya King in New York the way they do Pat’s vs Geno’s cheesesteaks in Philadelphia.  I find it hard to be so picky when it comes to a hot dog/tropical juice combo and Papaya King was closer, just a few blocks north in St Mark’s.  A classic dog with NY onions & mustard with a papaya juice for under $4 was the perfect way to start the day’s food journey.  Barcade is directly across the street, and made all of my dreams come true with its pairing of classic 80’s and 90’s arcade games with craft beer.  It’s like being a careless teenager and responsible adult all at once.  I sucked back a delicious Czech-style Bushwick Pilsner by Brooklyn’s Braven Brewing Company while kicking some ass at Rampage, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, Mortal Kombat II and Alien 3: the Gun.  The beer runs about $7 per pint (reasonable for Manhattan) but most of the games are only a quarter.

Though quite under dressed in my Baltimore Wharf Rat bar t-shirt (which I never travel without), I situated myself at the bar between a few suits at Amor Y Amargo, a cocktail lounge and bitters tasting room on E 6th St.  It’s a small space decorated with Spanish tile and damask wallpaper, and jazz subtly coming through the sound system. I’ve worked in a few bars but still couldn’t decipher half the ingredients on the menu; thankfully the friendly bartenders were quick with recommendations.  All I had to say was “bourbon” and they quickly introduced me to My Old Piano, with a rye whiskey base and a number of other things I was unfamiliar with… smokey, spicy and delicious. It’s classy for sure but completely unpretentious, with a small plastic dinosaur keeping residence on the shelf and the good-natured staff willing to chat and make jokes. The gal working even offered me a sample of Becherovka, a Czech herbal liqueur my wife and I somehow forgot to try during our stay in Prague a few years ago.  Cinnamon and anise: great in candy, not in alcohol. Actually anise pretty much sucks all around.

Proletariat on St Mark’s Pl advertises rare and unusual beers, and had my favorite atmosphere of any place we visited this weekend.  Dark wooden accents, ornate light fixtures and a wall lined with reproductions of classic tattoo flash (REAL classics, like Cap Coleman, Paul Rogers and of course, Sailor Jerry).  Replace the indie rock band of the week over the PA with the jazz that was playing at Amor Y Amargo and it would’ve been perfect.  Draft and can/bottle menus are posted throughout and while it’s not as vast as other establishments, they offer exactly what they advertise and prove that you can have a great selection without having 30+ drafts.  It ain’t cheap but that aided the plan to drink just a little at each place and visit more.  I had a small but fantastic sessionable saison with wildflower honey from Ardmore’s Tired Hands for $8. Proletariat is a great spot for drinkers who enjoy good beer but don’t want the pompous country club aura that sometimes accompanies it.

Five Tacos is a short walk down St Mark’s and I imagine one of the best deals in the city for quality food, quick service and decent prices.  If you’ve ever had a friend tell you that the best eateries in the city are hard-to-find dingy holes in the wall, they’re talking about places like Five Tacos. This place is the size of a walk-in closet and similar to Chipotle or Qdoba only in terms of the cafeteria-style order setup. The food beats the shit out of either, is ready in minutes for takeout or in-house if you want to squeeze onto one of the few chairs cozily nestled in front of the bar. My spicy chorizo taco with tequila chipotle mayo  and salsa for just under $4 hit the spot. Negro Modelo and Corona are available on draft and funny enough, more expensive than the tacos.

Record stores are a dying breed and inching closer to extinction each passing year, but thankfully there are still holdouts like A-1 Record Shop to soothe the souls of devotees who still enjoy flipping through bins of vinyl, hoping to spot some obscure Tom Waits import we didn’t know existed.  Alas I didn’t purchase anything but still enjoyed browsing amid a largely unfamiliar soul and reggae mix, which an employee helpfully suggested I could stream and/or download from their website after I expressed interest.  I’m seriously going to miss these places once they’re gone for good.

After a quick stop at my hotel to stash my Veniero’s bakery box we convened at SET, a gastropub nearby on Ludlow St. Classy wood interior and intimate lighting, but deafeningly loud between the music and chatter, though there weren’t even that many people in there.  We only waited a few minutes for a table and our food came relatively fast.  Bahn mi lemongrass sliders with sriracha mayo with a Coney Island Mermaid Pilsner was an adequate dinner, far better than your average run-of-the-mill bar food.  I could’ve done without the waitresses’ overly flirty Hooters vibe, helping themselves to physically inspecting and cooing over all of our tattoos but I suppose I can’t fault them for trying to score bigger tips.  I’d definitely go again though maybe earlier in the night in hopes of it being a bit quieter.

We ended our night at Stay Classy New York, a Will Ferrell-themed bar on Ludlow. There are posters and paintings of classic Ferrell characters adorning the walls, movies playing on constant rotation and cocktails named after his famed catchphrases.  It’s all every bit as goofy and stupid as we’d hoped.  The Scotchy Toss (scotch, cognac, sweet vermouth and amaretto) was tasty and while the atmosphere is fun it served as little more than the last stop on our catching up tour.  I bid them adieu after a short but celebrated evening, sad to know I’ll be missing their upcoming nuptials (music festival theme, artwork and live performance by one of our best friends, the incomparable Chris Stringer… lucky bastards).

Despite a fair amount of drinking I paced myself well throughout the day and never had too much of anything so I’m confident I might have avoided a hangover altogether if I hadn’t stopped for a nightcap at Copper & Oak, an upscale, classy whiskey bar just around the corner from my hotel.  I’ve worked my way through many bourbons and scotches over the years but have not yet delved into the world of Japanese whiskey, and an end-of-the-evening sipper seemed a good way to get acquainted.  The bar is cozy and lit by glowing copper colored light (how fitting), with clear shelves stretching to the ceiling, requiring many of the bottles to be reached by a rolling ladder like in an old library.  The bartenders know their products and it’s obvious they enjoy interacting with their clientele, recommending new spirits based on personal tastes… traits I typically appreciate but way more than I needed at this point in the evening.  I was more in the mood for some quiet reflective time so I probably wasn’t their ideal customer, asking for just a finger of a decent introductory Japanese whiskey fit for a bourbon lover.  I’d say the Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt is better suited for a scotch aficionado but I’ll assume he knows much better than I do and besides that, I didn’t care.  It was delicious, slightly spicy and a perfect end to the evening.  I retired to my hotel and chugged about a gallon of water.

I awoke refreshed after a surprisingly good nights’ sleep.  I expected to be rattled by noise at all hours considering the Manhattan location but I requested a quiet room, they put me on the eighth floor facing the rear and I’ll be damned if I heard anything over the hum of my AC unit fan.  Before making my way back to Jersey to retrieve my car, I took some time to walk a few blocks around Penn Station while listening to my lame awesome playlist of New York-themed songs. Sample selections include Fear’s “New York’s Alright if You Like Saxophones,” Lou Reed’s “Halloween Parade,” The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and of course, Sinatra’s timeless “New York, New York.”  Plenty of Ramones too.

Man Voyage IV: NY & Ontario

April 29, 2016 § 5 Comments

This being the fourth year, I’m struggling to come up with new introductions for Man Voyage.  The destination may change each year but it’s always about two friends hitting the open road to eat, drink and take stock of our lives. Read the full manifesto here and click the “Navigation” tab to read previous entries.  In the meantime, we’ll get right to the good stuff from this year’s trip through the Finger Lakes & upstate New York, the 1000 Islands and Prince Edward County, Ontario.

We stopped for a quick lunch at Grist Iron Brewing Company, in the very familiar Finger Lakes region of New York.  We spend so much time here for shows and day trips it’s a sort of second home, and we were anxious to try Seneca Lake’s newest brewpub again.  This was Jared’s second visit, my third and we appreciate it more each time.  The Front Porch IPA is better than I remembered (stronger too, at 9% ABV) and the Big “O” Organic Smash pale ale is the best beer I’ve had from them yet. Southwest mac ‘n cheese and a hot cup of chicken mushroom soup rounded out a nice lunch, and that elevated view of Lake Seneca never gets old. Our bartender was very knowledgeable of their brews and told us about upcoming expansion plans to add a bigger outdoor space for live music and overhead protection from any inclement weather.  Grist Iron is such a great addition to the flourishing brewery scene up here.

I-81 N would’ve gotten us to Wood Boat Brewery in Clayton, NY about 30 minutes earlier but we opted for the gorgeous lakeside drive of Rt 3.  The water was obscured by trees for a good while but once it opened up, that view made it hard to focus on the road.  Clayton is a waterfront town on the cusp of the 1000 Islands in upstate NY, small and quaint with an antique boat museum and general fascination with watercraft, fitting given its location.  Wood Boat is no exception, adorning every surface with vintage boat signage and memorabilia.  Not necessarily our thing but their commitment to the theme is commendable.  Their spacious outdoor deck provides a good view of the waterfront (just a block away) and would’ve been ideal for dining if it’d been less windy and just a bit warmer. Music is subtly pumped through a few outdoor speakers – mostly overplayed classic rock, but that’s our nitpick.

It feels very much like a neighborhood place; most of the other patrons were locals but that’s not to say it wasn’t inviting.  Our waitress was quick and attentive, applauding us for choosing the two best beers on the menu (IPA and oatmeal stout).  The brick pizza oven has an opening on the bar so they get pushed right out when they’re done. Our personal pizzas (sausage & pineapple, pulled pork & coleslaw) were fantastic and big enough we took a few slices to go. Clayton might be a short detour en route to the 1000 Islands but it’s definitely worth the stop.  The best part of their commitment to the theme?  The pizzas are shaped like boats.

Crossing the border at Wellesley Island is much faster than Niagara Falls.  There were four lanes open and our agent waved us through after a few routine questions.  Once again we opted for the scenic lakeside Route 2 over the quicker 401 – it was much too nice of a day to spend looking at nothing but highway traffic.  We arrived in Kingston, found the Confederation Place Hotel on Ontario Street with relative ease, nestled our car into their underground parking lot and ventured up to our fifth floor lake view room for a quick change of clothes.  I didn’t realize when I booked online that the hotel is owned by a chain (Howard Johnson’s maybe?  I saw it posted in the lobby but can’t remember) so technically we broke our ‘go local’ rule, but at $63 for a lake view room two blocks from our gig that evening it was hard to care.  The underground parking was $15 extra and if we hadn’t had the gig gear to haul we probably would’ve researched other nearby options. The room was clean & quiet, the bed was comfortable and the shower was hot… all Man Voyage hotel needs met.

We had a round of pre-gig beers at Stone City Ales downtown, where we experienced our first minor hiccup.  Upon entering we were greeted by a friendly gal at the walk-up counter who asked what she could get us.  Next to the counter is a partition with a clear glass door leading into the bar and seating area – every state/country/province has their own set of strange liquor laws so naturally we assumed that, for whatever reason, we had to order our beer here and take it into the bar.  We ordered an Uncharted IPA and Single Simcoe IPA, she handed us two bombers and told us to have a nice day.  We asked if we could have them opened for consumption at the bar and she looked at us like we were mental patients… yes ma’am, we are from out of town. Turns out we should’ve just walked through the clear glass door in the first place. We had a round in the bar and took our bombers home with us; not so much a minor hiccup but rather a dumb mistake that resulted in more beer.  Everybody wins.

It was a short walk to Musiikki Cafe, an excellent coffee/whiskey bar and even more excellent gig.  Owner Chris and sound man Alex welcomed us upon arrival, concocted a plan for me to play my solo set unplugged in the window front downstairs then move to the 2nd floor stage for the Echo & Sway later in the evening.  The bar downstairs blends an extensive combination of coffee and cafe staples (espresso, lattes, americanos, etc) with whiskies of all qualities, though I did spy several top shelf brands and a few that were unfamiliar to me.  They’ve also got other spirits and mixers for a small selection of cocktails, and a weekly discounted whiskey feature – this week it was J.P. Wiser’s Hopped, dry hopped in the same fashion as an IPA.  A harmonious blend of whiskey and beer properties, it was quite tasty but would probably be just an occasional sipper for me.  Band members are allotted two free drinks each, and I spent mine on a top-notch Old Fashioned and a bottled blonde ale by a Canadian micro I can’t remember.  Jared went with two of the Hopped whiskies, neat… classy guy, that one.

The performance space upstairs is equally stellar, with a small stage at the head of an elongated room.  Interesting side story: one of the cafe’s regular performers was carrying a cello on his back when he was hit by a car.  The cello was destroyed beyond repair, but saved his life in the process.  He donated it to Musiikki, who made it a stage backdrop with orange lights strung throughout. There’s also a chandelier of sorts fashioned from an old wooden door, freshly painted and affixed with small lanterns. The room is lit almost exclusively by those two pieces during showtime.  There’s also a wall for bands to sign and a single keg with a local pilsner on tap.

The gig was superb.  I had a loyal crowd for my solo set and several who stuck around after (namely Kevin and Julie, who sat with us) to chat about our tunes and travels, and life in Kingston.  The crowd fluctuated upstairs for the TE&S part of the evening, many coming and going but seated and attentive in between.  As our set was winding down we were flooded with a large group who not only insisted we continue, but with more original songs no less. Sore fingers and hoarse throats notwithstanding, we’d have been damn foolish to ignore a request like that.

We hung around awhile to mingle and enjoy another round of drinks. We shared stories of traversing the UK with a group of English girls and talked about everything under the sun at warp speed with a particularly fiery Aussie named Christine, who bought us a round of cocktails and proceeded to drink all three of them herself.  Our new friends directed us to Mr. Donair for late night eats, where we assembled a massive platter of poutine topped with tzatziki & sweet sauces, cucumbers, peppers and extra cheese.  Likely a terrible idea come morning, but bordering on genius in the moment.  We retired to our room exhausted but grateful for such an evening.  Unique spaces and fun audiences like this beat the shit out of nightclubs and run-of-the-mill bars any day, and are reasons in and of themselves for independent artists to play music and tour.

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We awoke refreshed and not nearly as digestively screwed as we’d anticipated following our poutine bomb.  After a quick toast & juice breakfast at the hotel we headed back to Musiikki for our morning espresso.  There were a half dozen other cafes downtown but we wanted to take a better look at some of the local art on their walls and patronize them again for giving us such a great gig.  Jared chatted beans and roasting with the morning barista and we grabbed some local literature before moving on.  I’m overstating it for a reason: Musiikki is too fucking cool.  We picked up some gifts and assorted nerdery at Novel Idea Books and Kingston Gaming Nexus before heading out. These stores seem to be thriving and it’s always nice to chat with small business owners in other towns. As always: shop local, folks.

After another beautiful waterfront drive along Rt. 33 we arrived at MacKinnon Brothers Brewing in Bath, a wonderfully chaotic little farm brewery and tasting room. We’d no idea where to go once in the parking area but we wandered the grounds, observing the brewing area and gorgeous rural setting until we spied a small shed with a bar and handmade stools inside.  The bartender couldn’t have been friendlier as she began pouring us samples of Crosscut Canadian ale, 8 Man English pale, Red Fox summer ale (brewed with a touch of beet juice, giving it a nice red hue), Origin German-style Hefeweizen and Wild peppermint stout.  Not a bad one in the bunch. One of the brothers came in and joined us for a full beer simply because “it’s Friday, and it’s lunchtime.”  Can’t argue with logic like that.

We could’ve used their new fully functioning bathroom facilities if we’d arrived two days later, but the roadside port a potty with resident farm dog chaperone suited us just fine.  We took home a few small growlers (Origin and Wild) and a set of coasters handmade from tree branches on their property and imprinted with their logo.  It was a beautiful start to the day.

I’m not sure I’d ever ridden on a ferry before this and I’m positive I’d never driven onto one.  We envisioned it being much more of a pain in the ass but the Glenora Ferry was smooth sailing all the way; the best option from Bath to Prince Edward County, and the most scenic.  It’s free and departs the end of Rt. 33 (Loyalist Parkway) every half hour.  Once the boat was in motion we got out to walk around and snap some pictures.  The ride was only a few minutes but it beat just sitting in the car.  Once we docked the gates opened and we picked up Rt. 33 on the other side.  I’d love it if this were a part of my daily commute.

We’d planned to make the Inn at Lake on the Mountain part of the beer tour before discovering they wouldn’t be open for the season until May 1st. Disappointing but the mystery of the lake itself is interesting and the view is even better.  We made our way into Picton for a snack and round of beers at County Canteen, a cozy little spot on the main drag with hardwood floors and exposed brick inside, and a small patio with funky lanterns and string lights out front.  Vegetarian rice paper rolls with peanut dipping sauce were great alongside a Muskoka IPA and Flying Monkeys Pilsner, and they had a nice enough variety of Canadian microbrew on tap we likely would’ve stayed for a few more if there weren’t many more attractive looking places to stop that day.  Our waitress/bartender was sweet but we found it odd when she told us they “don’t start giving out our WiFi password until peak season.”  Seems like an odd policy but whatever.  We bought a few gifts for our boys at Books & Company two doors down and made use of theirs while petting the resident bookstore cat.

A few short miles (well, kilometers) down the road was Barley Days Brewery, housed in what appears to be a small airplane hangar painted up like an old barn. We stayed longer than we’d planned thanks to a generous bartender who let us try everything though we only paid for one sampler (four liberal pours for $1, a damn good deal in itself), and a patron who wanted to chat with us while downing a few pints of cherry porter himself.  Their dark beers were among my favorites, particularly the Ursa Major Black IPA and Scrimshaw Oyster Stout.  Others could take a lesson in brewing with maple syrup: I find most in the style too sickeningly sweet and despite many reviews suggesting their Sugar Shack ale is the same, I found it perfectly balanced between bitter and sweet. The gift shop is loaded with local food items we were tempted to take home but weren’t sure what we could legally get through customs, though we did buy a bottle of hot sauce made by the bartender as part of a side business.  Two of the friendliest people we met, she even offered to call ahead to our next stop to make sure they were still open. Ahh, the perks of traveling in the off season.

We should have had her call 66 Gilead Distillery because he was locking up when we got there.  The grounds are beautiful, on a farm with some antique accents and animals running around.  In keeping with the generosity we’d experienced in Ontario thus far, he gladly opened back up to give us a few samples and talk in great detail about the ingredients and making of each of their spirits.  He really knows his stuff as we got a pamphlet’s worth of information on each one.  The Crimson Rye whiskey and Loyalist Gin were great and I was contemplating a purchase until I saw the price list. I’m obviously not averse to spending decent money on well-made liquor but with the money I’d already spent (and intended to spend) on alcohol this trip, between $50-$70 for a single bottle was a bit much. If Jared hadn’t already intended on buying vodka I probably would’ve sprung for something just to thank the guy for opening back up.  Next time I’ll ease up on beer and fit one of their spirits into my budget.

Our first of two food disappointments this trip was missing out on Terracello Winery. They’re rumored to have fantastic red wine and pizza that rivals Italy and we’d only eaten the spring rolls at County Canteen thus far.  Their advertised hours were 12-6, and I even emailed ahead to make sure they’d be open since it’s not peak season, which they confirmed.  We arrived shortly before 5:00 on Friday and they were closed, with nobody in sight.  It’s understandable that they’d quit early if things were slow but it still sucked.  Jared grew tired of me bitching about wanting pizza so he fished our Wood Boat leftovers out of the back.

It was about an hours’ drive to Gananoque Brewing Company in downtown Gananoque, not far from the border.  We were hungry after missing out on Terracello pizza (look Jared, I’m still griping about it) but couldn’t pass up one last Ontario brewery.  We’d had so much remarkable brew and the Gan was no exception.  Jared went in while I parked our car on a nearby street and I arrived a few minutes later to find him already sipping on a canned Bell Ringer IPA, also on draft but on a faulty tap line. I ordered a Coopershawk pale ale and we kicked back in their picture window seats, lined with comfortable cushions and pillows. Their were spent grain and hop pellets all over the floor and a perfect view of the brewing action, directly behind the bar with nothing to separate them but some kegs and stacks of malt bags.  We chatted about ‘Murica with a few locals at the bar before raiding the fridge for some takeout cans of IPA, Naughty Otter lager and Black Bear Bock. The bartender comped our round of beers to make up for the faulty draft IPA, which was incredibly generous considering it didn’t affect my beer at all.  We shoved the last of our Canadian money in her tip jar and left wondering if everyone in this country is as friendly as all of the wonderful people we’d met in the previous 24 hours.

Border patrol was a bit more harsh on our way back through.  “Why would you drive SIX HOURS from Pennsylvania to only spend ONE NIGHT in Ontario?  What were you DOING up here?!”  Just doing his job but still a bit unnerving.

I’d never stayed in a bed & breakfast until our UK tour last year, when we wanted to splurge for a nice stay in Worcester and all of the boutique hotels were either booked or overpriced.  Staying in someone’s house and socializing with other guests when I’m usually a grumpy asshole in the morning never sounded too appealing, but we took a chance and were pleasantly surprised.  Sackets Harbor B&B was more of the same: a big house on a quiet street owned by a nice couple who didn’t make two scruffy young hooligans feel out of place.  They welcomed us late at night, coordinated a time for breakfast, gave us a key for the front door and sent us out for dinner, asking only that we not make a ton of noise if we got back too late.  We were the first guests of the season and had the place to ourselves.

The Hops Spot and Sackets Harbor Brewing Company are located side-by-side, two blocks away on the main street downtown.  The former is supposed to have dynamite food so we’d planned on dinner & drinks there and additional beer at SHBC afterward. Again, advertised hours until 10, and we arrived at 9:00 to a closed building (only now when I’m checking the website do I see “RE-OPENING APRIL 27, 2016” … damn these places with seasonal hours).  Better than Terracello, that was at least posted online and we just didn’t see it.

SHBC was extremely hit or miss.  Per the instructions at the host station, we wandered into the bar to be seated for dinner but couldn’t find a bartender anywhere.  We only saw people drinking until we realized the bartender was one of them, nestled in a far corner sharing rounds with patrons.  We paid no attention, as sipping a bit on duty is both a perk and part of the job.  After five solid minutes though, we tired of waiting so we seated ourselves at a table, then waited another 10 for her to bring menus and take our drink order.  She was a sweet gal but also flat out drunk. She had difficulty focusing her eyes and began slurring her words. I wouldn’t care how much she’d had if she could still function but it took her a ridiculous amount of time to check on tables, as she rarely left her corner of the bar.

All of the waiting wouldn’t have mattered if the beer and food were exceptional but much of it was pretty ordinary.  They have an atmosphere and feel that cater to locals but the quality of a tourist brewpub.  1000 Islands pale, St. Stephens Stout and Barstool Bitters were decent but underwhelming, as were Jared’s seafood chowder and fish tacos.  I will praise their willingness to cook a rare burger – my Adirondack with bacon, cheese and apple slices had a good amount of blood in it and was damn tasty. I’ll assume the excessive imbibing and subsequent inattentiveness from the bartender isn’t a regular thing and I certainly won’t fault them for the overabundance of obnoxious popped collar frat boys because brewpubs attract all different types of clientele.  The atmosphere is cozy and inviting but I expected a little more from a place that, as I discovered via Liquid Alchemy‘s review, has been around since 1995 (Side note: read Liquid Alchemy’s review.  He has many positive things to say about SHBC and per the comment the owner left on this page, it sounds like we visited on an off night.  I’ll definitely give it another go next time I’m in the area.).  

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We had a hell of a good night’s sleep and piping hot showers the following morning at the B&B.  We were also in bed by around midnight so we could get a decent nights’ sleep and still make our 8:00 breakfast time.  Fruit, cereal, juice, freshly baked banana bread and made-to-order eggs and bacon all made a great breakfast.  Mary and her husband were kind hosts who made us feel welcome to socialize while granting us our own space.  Everything was very casual.

We’d planned to walk off our breakfast via the self-guided tour along the hiking trails at Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site, a block away from the B&B. It began that way until we wandered down by the water and discovered a more scenic, if much more precarious and possibly illegal trek on some jagged rocks underneath an outcropping of cliffs.  We walked until a blockage kept us from going any farther, both of us narrowly dodging several spills into the frigid water as we stepped on the slipperier rocks. There were no signs we couldn’t take the walk though it was certainly off the beaten path.

Weedsport in the northernmost reaches of the Finger Lakes is a small town that time hasn’t been kind to.  Strongly reminiscent of our once booming lumber region of central PA now a shell of its former self, much of Weedsport looks like a ghost town. Many of the buildings downtown are worn and decrepit with empty storefronts, but the same way local favorites like Avenue Coffee and Broken Axe Brew House have helped to revitalize our downtown, I imagine Lunkenheimer Craft Brewing Company is breathing some new life into this one. Located unassumingly behind the Old Erie restaurant on the main drag, Lunkenheimer houses a small brewing operation behind what looks to be a handmade wooden bar and draft system, accented with growlers from other NY state breweries. We grabbed a six beer sampler for $5 and planted ourselves at a table outside – we wanted to chat with the bartender but it was just too damn nice out.  None of the beers blew us away but were all decent enough, the Hoppy Little Kolsch being a favorite and very easy drinker while sitting in the sun. Seems like a place with a lot of potential that I wouldn’t hesitate to visit again in a few years, once they’ve developed their craft a bit more and Weedsport hopefully has more to its downtown than a vape shop.

A 15 minute countryside drive south, Auburn has some nice brick streets, boutique stores and  the original Genesee beer sign in its downtown.  They’ve also got Prison City Pub & Brewery, another relatively new addition to the area serving beer so damn good they tailored the food menu to their brewer’s selections.  It’s hearty fare: burgers, sandwiches and the like, with some small plates and appetizers to share. The pork belly tacos with house-made kimchi & avocado lime sauce were my favorite meal of the weekend.  Jared had a lighter lunch of everything pretzels with queso sauce & beer mustard and while everything was delicious, the focus really is on the beer.  The berliner weisse has made a stateside resurgence in the past several years and while my favorite of the style is still Nodding Head (Philadelphia), Prison City’s Klink was tart and refreshing.  The Bleek Warden Belgian strong pale and 4 Piece pale were both sessionable enough to enjoy a few pints but still packed with flavor.

They really went all out with their theme, an effort we always appreciate. From the lock & key logo to their wall of mugshots for pub club members, the prison details are ever-present.  Our waiter was unbelievably friendly, apologizing for our two minute wait and hustling to take great care of seemingly every table in the place by himself with occasional help from the bartenders.  Prison City is fantastic and I only wish it were closer to the Watkins Glen/Hector/Lodi areas we frequent so we could include it on every trip.  We got a later start than planned thanks to our impromptu hike in Sackets Harbor so we passed up Good Shepherd Brewing Company, just a few blocks away.  Next time.

We walked a few blocks north to the Thirsty Pug Craft Beer Market, located in the Genesee Mall.  The mission statement on their website reads:

Here at the Thirsty Pug, beer is our passion. We carry only the best craft beer available and promise you’ll always leave with a great product. Our constantly growing and rotating inventory ensures a fresh and diverse selection. Our knowledgeable staff is happy to assist you with beer selection, food pairings and even designing your own beer tastings at home! Come explore the complex, diverse world of beer and experience the Thirsty Pug advantage.  

They couldn’t have chosen truer words to run their business by.  I’ve no idea if the guy working was the owner or just an employee but he was ecstatic to be talking beer with some locals when we walked in and shifted the conversation to us when they left. Thirsty Pug has a killer selection and I bought much more than I’d intended, with a great mix of styles from all over the world and from several breweries I’d never heard of.  Everything is neatly organized by style and most are available to buy in singles. They have a few draft beers as well, and I enjoyed a Liquid Crystal hoppy farmhouse ale from Brooklyn’s Grimm Artisinal Ales while Jared poked around the rest of the mall.

———

Another year, another round of first rate establishments discovered in our small corner of the world.  As if the gentleman at Thirsty Pug wasn’t helpful enough, he may have given us a few ideas for next year.

Cape May, NJ

March 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

Like any good resident of the Mid-Atlantic region, I spent a good portion of my adolescence mocking New Jersey.  Probably because my old man is a born-and-bred New Yorker, and I grew up listening to his constant ridicule and general disdain for all things Garden State.  I haven’t been there enough to feel strongly about it one way or another but it’s never stopped me from joining my Dad in passionately referring to it as the armpit of the United States.

My in-laws vacation in Cape May every fall and insisted we join them this year because we have a kid now, and the joy of seeing their grandson at the beach for the first time was too much for them to behold.  Of course, they weren’t so excited that they offered to take the stubborn toddler who hates car rides in THEIR vehicle but you know, perks of being a grandparent.  My inner grumpy old man loves quaint little seaside towns and my wife and I hadn’t been to the beach together in years so I grew excited despite its Jersey locale, and prepared to hold my nose as we crossed the Commodore Barry Bridge, just in case.

Thankfully our little fireball slept most of the ride, woke in a good mood and amused himself with the three dozen car toys we bought so it was smooth sailing until we arrived at the Avondale By the Sea, along Beach Avenue and just steps from the sand. The Avondale is a nice little mom and pop place with a fairly standard continental breakfast, bright rooms and friendly staff.  The lounge area in the main building is nice enough but they’ll let you take your breakfast on a tray back to your room.  We had a spacious two room suite for about $90 per night, which given the close proximity to the beach wasn’t bad for off season.

Speaking of off season, hours can differ drastically from peak times for restaurants, cafes and shops.  We were suddenly reliving the horror of trying to locate a decent cup of coffee after 5:00 on our October honeymoon in the Outer Banks.  Most places closed long before their advertised hours.  We had to plan every afternoon around our coffee run to Magic Brain Cyber Cafe before they closed at 6:00 (does no one else need a pick-me-up in the evening?).  Thankfully it was fairly central and easy to get to because every other place that offered decent coffee only keeps weekend hours after Labor Day. Magic Brain had four or five different roasts available every day, always fresh and piping hot.  Chatted with the owner a bit too, nice fella.

My in-laws are saints among people but unfortunately don’t share our enthusiasm for good food and drink.  The only condiment she can handle without gagging is salt, and he would be content to eat cheap hot dogs, pizza and greasy chips the rest of his life.  They rarely deviate from traditional comfort foods and considering we were eating most meals together, we weren’t counting on the vast array of spices and ethnic food excitement we typically look forward to while traveling.  Still, things weren’t as bland as we’d feared and we managed to get away once or twice.

We ate dinner our first night at The Lobster House, a seafood restaurant on the bay that’s exactly like every seafood restaurant on the bay of every seaside beach town. It’s big, has a nautical theme, the wait staff dress the part, the bartenders don’t know how to make any drink that isn’t on their pre-fixed cocktail menu and it takes forever to get your food because everyone in town eats there and it’s always busy. Not everything was terrible; I dug the nautical theme and the pre-dinner mini loaf of freshly baked bread was fantastic but seriously, how hard is it to make a Manhattan?  I realize I’m a bit of an old soul and not everyone drinks classic cocktails anymore but it should be harder to screw up a drink with only three ingredients. And where’s my friggin cherry?!

Criticizing the food might be unfair since  A) I ordered steak in a seafood joint (I enjoy only two or three types of fish and none were on the menu) and B) most restaurants won’t prepare anything rare these days due to stupid OSHA regulations, but they cooked the shit out of my filet mignon.  Government red tape aside, when requested “as rare as you’re legally allowed to prepare it,” it shouldn’t be like shoe leather.  Filet mignon is a damn fine cut of beef and overcooking it is a tragedy. My wife wasn’t crazy about her scallops, so it was either an off night or seafood isn’t their specialty either. The saving graces were the aforementioned bread, mashed potatoes, Enzo’s chicken finger and fries basket (better than our meals) and tiramisu. All in all not worth waiting nearly an hour for.

We took a late night stroll through the Washington Street Mall, an outdoor common area with brick walkways, fountains, and a plethora of shops and restaurants.  I broke my no-chain-restaurants rule to snag some ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s when I spied Triple Caramel Chunk on the outdoor menu, a flavor they took off of shelves and made an in-store exclusive years ago.  In another case of non-advertised seasonal hours biting us in the ass, Collier’s Liquor Store, where we’d planned to buy some NJ micro brews to stock our hotel fridge with, closed an hour earlier than we’d read.  I was forced to duck into some loud, rowdy sports bar nearby, the only one that advertised NJ beer to go, and wait 15 minutes for the wannabe go-go dancer behind the bar to acknowledge the only guy in the place not drooling over her Hooters reject outfit.  Sometimes it’s tough being an aging cynic.

Our second day we tackled the Cape May Zoo.  I’m never sure what to write about a zoo… it’s big and there are animals. The food sucks but again, we were there off season and they were out of half the listed menu items.  Most people don’t expect a gourmet meal from a zoo; it’s edible and disease free, and that’s about all. Entry to the zoo is free (donations accepted) and there’s a huge playground for kids like ours who just need to run around.  He dug the animals but got tired of the stroller, and if we’d let him out he likely would’ve wound up in the pen trying to cuddle the snow leopard. We took the long way back, on the coastline roads through Stone Harbor and Wildwood. Much more scenic than the Garden State Parkway.

For dinner that evening my in-laws took us to another of their favorites, The Ugly Mug in Washington Square Mall.  We didn’t have high hopes, especially after I realized this is the bar I’d wandered into the previous night to buy takeout beer but it turned out to be much more civilized during the day.  Rebecca’s fish and my California turkey wrap with chipotle mayo were actually quite tasty, and it didn’t hurt that Cape May Brewing’s Coastal Evacuation on tap is one of the best double IPA’s I’ve ever had.  Jan & Mike definitely earned back some points after the Lobster House.

We rang in the evening at Sunset Beach where, as you may have guessed, we watched the sun set over the SS Atlantus from World War I, which remains embedded in the ocean a few hundred feet out.  Enzo amused himself by playing with Cape May diamonds, pebbles smoothed by the ocean and washed up in a ring on the beach like a sandbar.  I’ll get sentimental for a moment to say it was a hell of a sunset, enriched by being able to watch it with my family on our first trip to the beach together… alright, that’s enough.

I did make it back to Collier’s in time to pick up some New Jersey beer.  There weren’t as many NJ brewery options as we’d hoped but I did find some River Horse cans and assorted Dogfish, Chimay, Firestone Walker and a few others in the mix-and-match. Prices were decent and they only laughed a little bit when I explained why I asked if I could carry it all out at once… I’ve got the PA Liquor Law Blues. Collier’s focus seems to be more on liquor and wine, as those were much more plentiful than the beer.  Nice little shop and if we’d been spending more than a few days in NJ I’d have explored their bourbon a bit more.

We splurged for breakfast the following morning at Aleathea’s Restaurant, just a block away from the Avondale.  It was way too nice a place to bring a two year old, full of antiques and Victorian-style decor but thankfully his attention was held by Rebecca’s Gran Marnier, mascarpone & pecan french toast, and my Nutella & marshmallow pancakes.  Good food, nice place though not exactly our style.  I’m pretty sure we were the only ones under 70 and not using terms like “that’s just darling” to describe everything in the place.

We poked around West End Garage awhile in the afternoon.  Antique furniture and accessories, vintage memorabilia, framed artwork, consignment artistry, etc.  Most of the booths actually have prices on their items, always helpful yet somehow neglected in a lot of these shops.

I wish I had photos of the stunning views from atop the Cape May Lighthouse but unfortunately we didn’t make the climb.  199 steps wouldn’t normally be too much but carrying a 30 lb toddler would’ve changed that.  We’d have ditched him with the in-laws and gone up ourselves but they’d already put up with his antics through the bird observatory, sea and wildlife visitor’s centers and having them watch him later in the evening while we broke off for food and beer was much more important.

Finally, a night to ourselves. Family time is fantastic but we could hear Key West Tacos and Cape May Brewing Company calling our names.  The continuous loop of Jimmy Buffett over the sound system was awful for us but consistent with the theme, full of beach paraphernalia and tiki bric-a-brac adorning every square inch of the place.  We ordered the Caribbean spiced pulled pork with mango BBQ, vegetarian burrito and some chips & pico for $12 and were too stuffed to hit the nearby empanada place we’d planned on before the brewery.  Tasty stuff and a nice outdoor seating area with picnic tables and patio lights.

Pennsylvania has some weird liquor laws but NJ might have one up on us.  Upon entering Cape May Brewing we were told that per state law, each patron must take a self-guided tour of the facility and learn about the brewing process before consuming any alcohol.  It sounded like an awful lot of work just to drink a few beers but we were assured they’d created a hasty shortcut to comply with regulations. We walked to the back where we found a brief synopsis of the brewing process scrawled on a chalkboard, ingredients in pint glasses on a folding table (hot damn, this tour includes visual aids!) and pamphlets for each person to take confirming the tour was completed.  Stupid yes, but it took all of 30 seconds so at least they’ve found a way to work around the system. We were now fully qualified to imbibe.

The tastings more than made up for the tour silliness anyway.  $10 buys you four tokens, each one worth a 4 oz sample of anything on the board, and afterward you get to keep your CMBC glass.  $20 bought us two glasses and the chance to try nearly everything on tap: three different IPA’s including a double, two sours, a Belgian pale, saison, and spiced wheat ale.  Not a bad one in the bunch, matter of fact several were exceptional, but none quite as good as their double IPA I’d had on tap at dinner the night before.  This is a damn good brewery.

Back to Washington Square Mall to meet up with everyone at Peace Pie, dessert shack serving ice cream sandwiches with layers of pie filling.  A hell of a selection, all delicious but incredibly decadent; it would’ve been worth bringing a cooler and saving half for another time. Nice end to our last night.

Our last morning we packed up the car, took one last stroll on the beach where Enzo still wasn’t quite ready to get in the water but loved watching it crash around my ankles while I held him.  We stopped at Bella Vida on the way out of town to grab a quick lunch in their garden.  It’s a small Italy-meets-Costa Rica cafe with fresh, seasonal dishes.  Huevos Rancheros were good but not nearly as good what I make.  I actually preferred my wife’s seafood wrap. The menu was a tad too “strange” for my in-laws’ taste (read: there were no hot dogs on it) but Enzo loved his quesadilla. Our toddler has a broader palate than his grandparents.

Having a toddler along doesn’t make for the most relaxing family vacation but fun nonetheless.  Cape May has some nice buildings and I could’ve used another afternoon to stroll around with my wife, enjoy the architecture, take in some other sights, but we had a great few days and I’m happy to have learned that Jersey ain’t so bad after all.

Just don’t tell my old man.

Live @ 5:00, 98.7 The Freq

February 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

Diversity hasn’t been a strong quality in central Pennsylvania radio for many years. We’re bloated with this horrible Nashville pop garbage that passes for country music these days, with auto tuned banjos and wannabe cowboys in $200 designer studded jeans (if that weren’t enough, a good number of these studio-bred morons have begun incorporating rap into their songs, effectively disgracing two genres simultaneously). If that’s not coming through our speakers while the radio shuffles, it’s likely worn out classic rock staples interspersed with today’s “hard rock” (bands with names like Five Finger Death Punch) or top 40. Even satellite radio stations seem to rotate the same 20 songs and nothing else. On longer drives I’m happy to plug in my iPod or pop in a cassette but I shouldn’t feel the need to maintain radio silence during my daily 10 minute commute to work. [Side note: the Altville, Americana Overnight and Classic Country shows on 99.9 The Bear are quite good but only a fraction of that station’s programming].

While shuffling one afternoon last summer the Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” caught my ear. At first I thought I’d mistakenly powered on my iPod but no, that was most certainly some horrible Blake Shelton crap playing just moments before. It was followed by Whiskeytown – not solo Ryan “I just covered an entire Taylor Swift album and expanded my fan base by 10 billion” Adams, but Whiskeytown.  A mere few weeks later my pal Timmy Tatts announced he was to be a guest on something called the Morning Mixtape, talking about his craft and shop.  I don’t know that we’ve ever had a station in the area cool enough to feature guests and music of this caliber.  What in the hell is going on?

In high school I was faithful to 101.1 (now a country station), specifically the Free Range Radio program on Sunday nights.  You see kids, back in the 90’s before the internet exploded with pirate sites, YouTube, iTunes or even Napster (damn, even that reference feels dated) you actually had to listen to the radio and call in requests when you wanted to hear certain stuff.  Here’s the kicker though: back then, the radio didn’t totally suck.  The Free Range playlist featured everything from Nirvana and Weezer to the Dead Kennedys, Elvis Costello, Springsteen, Pixies, early folk, old blues and anything else the other stations weren’t playing.  It’s been a long time but the radio gods have finally blessed us with 98.7 the Freq, and taken me back to those Sunday nights I had my ears glued to the beat up old radio in my parents’ kitchen.

Cooler still is their dedication to local music, and I mean ALL local music, not just the band the owner’s kid plays in.  They put area acts into their regular rotation, promote shows, work with the local newspaper to get band info and interview snippets into the weekly entertainment excerpt and best of all, host a 30 minute “Live at 5:00” program every Friday where local bands and singer/songwriters give interviews and perform.

Incidentally (and I swear not the only reason I’m championing them so heartily), my pal Jared and I were invited to bring our folk/punk duo The Echo & Sway to Live at 5 in January and we couldn’t have had more fun.  We arrived shortly after 4:00 and were welcomed by afternoon DJ Dave Snyder, chatting us up as we tuned and got gear situated. Our host Jason Crane arrived shortly after and along with his partner, my old man, studio interns, local photographer Jeni Kocher Zerphy and a small studio audience, we spent the better part of the afternoon nyucking it up, cracking jokes and generally acting juvenile. It was good company to be in for sure.

The shindig is catered every week by Gigi’s Southern Table, who provide an appetizer and carafe of their featured cocktail for everyone to share.  As if they knew my taste, this week’s was Renegade Manhattan, with Bulleit Rye Whiskey. We poured ourselves a few generous glasses (hey, nobody else was digging in and we weren’t about to let it go to waste) and prepped for showtime.  We didn’t have an opportunity afterward to partake of the spinach artichoke dip but I’d give Gigi’s a try sometime based on the cocktail alone.

We were able to cram in six songs amid our interview segments.  Jason very kindly described us as having an “economy” to our songwriting, when in reality I’m just too lazy to write longer songs. A slightly incomplete video of our performance is available to stream on YouTube, missing only Jared’s sultry crooning of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket.”  I won’t say it was my favorite part of our performance but I’m confident that Chrissie Hynde herself would approve of his interpretation. There’s also a collection of several other performances under the “Live @ 5” tab on their website.

Afterward we made our way downtown for dinner and a few beers at Liberty Craft House.  Relatively new, Liberty keeps in the tradition of many State College establishments in its mixing of pretentiousness and drunken student tomfoolery, but we tolerate those things because the food and beer is top notch. Their state-of-the-art electronic draft system houses nearly 50 taps and includes beer, wine, cold brewed coffee and even pre-mixed cocktails like the Hurricane and Moscow Mule.  Next to each is a symbol that depicts how much is left in the keg so you always know if it’s relatively fresh or that end-of-the-batch nastiness.

Liberty is a decent place to hang out on a Friday evening as well.  Hardwood floor, exposed brick walls, comfortable booths, nicely lit and not overly loud, though as usual I could do without the damn televisions. It’s probably a crime to not have them in a town known for their football fanaticism and prone to rioting over it; heaven forbid we have dinner or drinks without the ability to watch a game. We shared a charcuterie plate, pierogies and sausage sandwich. They advertise local, organic ingredients and the food reflects that (or as they put it, “foodstuffs” … read: pretentiousness).  Washing it all down with Troegs Nugget Nectar and a few limited release unpasteurized Stone Enjoy By IPA’s was a damn fine way to end the evening.

If you’re in central PA, tune your radio to 98.7 and give ’em a listen.  Elsewhere you can stream them on 987thefreq.com.  Thus far they’ve been a refreshing game changer, reviving my ability to enjoy radio again and helping me discover a few new bands. Here’s to hoping they do the same for you.

2015 Gig Roundup: The Outlook, Hanover PA

February 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Playing a benefit show is never pleasant venture, especially when it’s for someone in your own family.  My dad’s ex-wife (for all intents and purposes, my mom) and her new husband had one motherfucker of a year. A space heater exploded in their garage and quickly spread into a fire that engulfed most of the house, burning it down to the studs. Just when they were beginning to recover and rebuild, he was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that’s taken over portions of his liver and lymph nodes and even seeped a bit into his blood stream.  There’s only one word to describe a year of that caliber, and it is, indeed, motherfucker.

There’s a horrible feeling of helplessness when someone you love is in trouble and there’s not much you can do.  All I could offer was to perform a benefit, where we’d probably only raise enough money to put a small dent in their upcoming travel costs back and forth to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, but at least we’d gather friends and family to show support.  I was born and raised in Hanover and still have a good deal of family and friends in the area so I was pretty sure we’d pack the place.  I couldn’t be more grateful to Rachelle and David at The Outlook in Hanover for helping me put everything together, write up press releases and get the word out in the community. The local newspaper even contacted me for an interview to help spread awareness.

I brought my old man along for the ride, with a plan to visit my grandmother and explore Hanover’s burgeoning brewery scene before the show. This town has long been a difficult spot to acquire some decent micro brew.  Years ago there was Kclinger’s Tavern, which housed 30+ drafts and 500 bottles from around the world but closed in 2011, likely due to a staggering amount of bar fights (we witnessed more than one in our sporadic visits), generic sports motif and atmosphere that catered exclusively to macho bros and the dramatic Barbie Doll types they fought over. Hanover is also home to every chain restaurant known to humankind so you know, Sam Adams, Leinenkugel’s, or maybe a Dogfish Head if you’re lucky.  Four breweries have sprung up in the city since 2013 and we were anxious to try one or two of them.

We met my sister and her boyfriend at Miscreation Brewing, right in Center Square. We sat overlooking the square, in a booth with a mosaic backing made of recycled skateboard pieces. Too cool.  We shared a few paninis and some spent grain pretzels and cheese with mustard dip, all on par with standard brewpub food and that ain’t a bad thing.  Like many though, the food basically serves as accompaniment and the real focus is on the beer, or in this case, “miscreations.” The Powder Keg, Frank’n Stout, Pale Storm and Reckless Imperial IPA were all unbelievably crisp and fresh, better than anything I presumed brewed with Hanover water to be capable of.  The place is lit almost exclusively by the natural light coming in the first floor picture windows and very family friendly.

A sign above the bar advertised fresh beer to go with a single plastic cup pictured.  I presumed it was some sort of sippy cup type deal with a straw poking out of a hole in the lid.  The waitress brought me an open cup and bid us adieu… what the hell is this? This state has some of the most constricting liquor laws in the country and you’re telling me I can walk outside with an open beer and drink it on the street? Even after she assured us that was the case I was hesitant, especially when the first car to pass us on the street was a cop.  I took a liberal gulp as he passed and hot damn, it’s true. Hanover is not a town I’d have predicted to be so progressive with its open container laws but it’s awesome nonetheless.  I drank without fear of repercussion as we walked to our next stop.

Something Wicked Brewing Company is two blocks away from Miscreation, also a welcome addition to the PA craft beer scene. Industrial feel with exposed pipes is cool, and the wall-sized mural of beer themed quotes and electronic draft display are nice touches.  It’s got a great brewery atmosphere but I prefer the relaxing tone of a brewpub, so SWBC is the lesser of the two for me, if only slightly.  If Miscreation’s beers weren’t so fresh in my mind I probably would have enjoyed these more.  Chaos (chocolate coconut stout), Sinful (IPA) and black IPA were good but paled slightly in comparison. Complimentary tabletop pretzels and a friendly staff rounded out a nice first experience; I’d definitely recommend Something Wicked to anyone and look forward to trying it again myself sometime.

My sister was kind enough to return to Miscreation and refill my cup while I headed to The Outlook for setup and sound check.  It’s one of the most eccentric venues I’ve played and that’s absolutely a compliment.  The stage is a carpeted alcove overlooking a consignment shop with clothing, furniture, albums, memorabilia and anything else you can think of.  My only regret is not having enough time between playing and socializing to shop.  David (owner) and Rachelle (event coordinator) were friendly and very accommodating, setting up folding chairs, bean bags and coffee tables in front of the stage, making coffee and offering light refreshments.  The whole setup is reminiscent of the punk rock house shows I enjoyed as a young hooligan and I felt right at home.

They set up a big, comfortable lounge chair right in the center for the guest of honor, who arrived in great spirits and took all of his fanfare and excessive attention in stride.  I played my first set then socialized with our packed house while Harrisburg duo Weird Year performed.  Busy as it was I never got to properly thank them for donating their time and talent, and I enjoyed them immensely.  They’re a single electric guitar setup with everything sung in two part harmony, and it was beautiful. I hope we have an opportunity to share the stage together again someday.

We suggested a $5-10 donation, which Rachelle collected at the door and at the end of the night we were pleased to discover several people had given more.  I had no expectations and would have been happy with anything we’d taken in.  The Outlook donated every penny and were tremendous in helping throughout the evening, and never rushed us out when we all spent quite a bit of time socializing after my second set. They’re a unique venue I’d recommend to anyone looking for a change of pace from the usual bar gig.

Bullfrog Brewery, Williamsport PA

February 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

Williamsport is known primarily as the home of the Little League World Series & Hall of Fame, and drugs.  A whole lot of drugs.  Like most cities it’s gorgeous in parts and downright ugly in others, but was also one of the forerunners in the Pennsylvania craft beer movement, home to several of the state’s finest breweries years before every town in America had a brewpub popping up on every block.

The Bullfrog was their first, and has become an area institution for good beer and live music.  I’d never played there before my good pal David Pulizzi and his band Graveyard Rooster asked me to open up for them in January.  I offered to play for dinner and beer since I had the opening slot, his band are mostly working musicians and I was just happy to finally play somewhere I’d been enjoying so long. The Bullfrog was the first place I tried an IPA 13 long years ago (“It’s so fucking gross, it tastes like perfume!”) and their beer has maintained the same fantastic quality ever since, despite the departure of near legendary brewmaster Terry Hawbaker a few years back. Nate Saar’s style is a bit different but consistently great, and his farmhouse saisons have become real standouts in the area. Their food menu has changed a lot over the years and while I’m still bitter they did away with their chicken parmesan, their burgers are fantastic and the mac ‘n cheese with ale sauce is a welcome addition.

The best part about playing solo in an opening slot is getting to skip sound check, a necessary evil but tedious nonetheless.  When the whole band goes first and the the front man gets his guitar and vocals at the right levels, it takes very little tweaking for my acoustic guitar & vocal setup to sound right.  I offered to help of course but was repeatedly told to sit  and relax so I obliged.  I mingled with friends and the legions of new fans I was surely about to amass with my 45 minute set, and enjoyed my complimentary food and drink.  Jong Bruin Kriek (sour brown steeped with cherries) and Jon’s Jawn (wild fermented saison with cocoa nibs and merlot grapes) were easy drinkers, and fantastic predecessors to the coup de grace, the Figgy Pudd’n.  An 11% Belgian Quad with figs, it went down much easier than it should have and ensured I’d be taking my buddy Ryan up on his offer to drive us home.

The sound technician (who doubled as Dave’s drummer this evening) had everything up and running smoothly in no time and sure enough I plugged in, ran through a quick verse/chorus of The Clash’s “Train in Vain” and off we went.  It’s Williamsport’s premier venue for music but still a bar and restaurant, with a fair amount of people dining and socializing but the listening audience is listening intently.  The front 1/3 of the restaurant nearest the band setup were clearly there for music and showed it with liberal applause; many even took the time to come over and chat between sets.

Graveyard Rooster was incredible.  You can listen to some tracks from the album on their website and while the recording is solid, it hardly does them justice.  This show fell on what would have been Elvis Presley’s 81st birthday and the boys covered a few of the King’s songs in tribute. Add in some bruschetta with toasted baguette crisps and it was a damn fine evening.

I only wish I could take credit for designing a poster that features a rooster wearing sunglasses.

Graveyard Rooster

2015 Gig Roundup: Riepstine’s Pub, Williamsport PA

February 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

I played some great shows in 2015. I’ll be recalling these fine venues and the kind folks who run them in separate posts throughout January, save for the gigs on the UK & Ireland tour which you can read about here

Thanks to the versatility of my cohorts, Rattlesnake Gospel has the ability to alternate between foot-stomping, hand-clapping rockin’ barroom band and quieter, more mellow lounge trio to suit different venues and circumstances.  We’ll do either but are at our best when we can turn up the volume and let loose, especially after a good meal and a few pints of delicious microbrew.  My wife and I frequent Riepstine’s for dinner but this was my first time playing with any group.  It was a damn good time and I hope it’s not the last.

Bands have to provide their own sound which can be a hassle to lug around but at least it’s equipment you’re familiar with (it took me nearly half an hour to properly assemble and sound check with an unfamiliar PA system at a solo gig elsewhere last summer).  Ideally a venue will provide compensation, food and drink for their entertainment but if we only get one or the other, I’d much rather the beer be part of the package as it is here.  I’ve listened to different venues’ justifications for their policies and having been on that side of the operation, I usually understand their reasons.  In this case, Riepsteine’s beer is just so damn good it’s hard to care too much.

Ahh, Riepstine’s beer… a reason in and of itself to visit Williamsport, PA.  Alpha Deuce double IPA is one of the finest of its style I’ve had anywhere, their Oktoberfest and pumpkin porter are two fall beers I most look forward to each year and I don’t overly care for either style, the winter seasonal Reindeer Fuel is a Belgian-style whopper at 12% that goes down like its half of that, and their everyday flagship brews are among the best on the menu.  The food is limited to a handful of sandwiches, appetizers and shared plates, plus a weekly featured burger. It’s all quite tasty (not very vegetarian friendly, much to my wife’s chagrin) but as the slogan says, “it’s all about the beer.” We shared a few massive plates of pizza fries and drank like kings.

The place is divided into the main bar area and a back dining room where tables are moved for bands to set up.  After a quick and painless sound check, we tore through two hour-long sets of all original material and got to do a few songs with our friend and occasional harmony vocalist Todd Patterson, who was leaving this bleak and desolate land to settle in Hawaii with his new fiancée a few days afterward.  We played a slew of new tunes, which you can be on the lookout for this year… seriously, we are working on a new album.  We mean it this time.

We packed the place, barely left an open seat in the house and when we were paid at the end of the night, the bartender told us we’d brought a bigger crowd than any band in recent memory.  We couldn’t have been more flattered.  Next time I suppose we’ll have to shoot for no empty seats at all.

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