Aside from well-curated draft and bottle lists, these eight beer-focused restaurants have next to nothing in common. And that’s precisely the point. This year, we celebrate beer’s versatility, whether it’s being paired with sausage or seafood, set on swanky tables or sipped with street fare.
Los Angeles, California
Some might describe the menu at Baldoria as “globally inspired comfort food.” Others might call it “wacky.” Rather than your standard plate of chicken wings, Chef Duke Gervais offers a stack of confit duck wings coated in Caribbean spices. Instead of pepperoni and marinara, the pizza’s topped with baby octopus and radicchio cream sauce. French fries and tater tots are nowhere to be found; you’ll get fingerling potatoes, simmered, smashed and tossed with gremolata.
But the “hey, let me try that” weirdness is sort of the point, says owner David King.
“Sharing—that’s basically our motto,” King says. “Everything we plate is spaced into little bites, and that’s how we get people to try as much food and beverage as possible.” King, a former sommelier, designed Baldoria as a nod to Italian aperitivo bars that blur the line between bar and restaurant, and did so not just through communal tables and a white subway tile wall that serves as the screen for projected movies and sports, but by constructing a beer program focused on large-format brews worthy of a bottle share. Big beers like Cascade Figaro and The Bruery’s 17% ABV anniversary ale, Poterie, are shareable standouts on the menu of 35-ish bottles. But those feeling a little more selfish can always go for one of the eight rotating drafts (usually featuring at least one beer from Mumford Brewing, located a few hundred feet down the road) or a selection of pre-mixed, bottled cocktails.
Neighborhood Restaurant Group—the powerhouse behind beer-centric D.C.-area spots Churchkey, Birch & Barley, Bluejacket, The Sovereign and many more—got funky with Hazel. The Shaw neighborhood spot sets its own course, separate from the other restaurants over which beer guru Greg Engert presides. A Pop Art-inspired mural, oversized floral accents and artificial turf-style patio carpeting tell diners they’re in for something new.
Open since June 2016, Hazel nabbed former Tallula chef Rob Rubba. His globe-spanning dishes include distinctive plates like Gnocchi Bokki (a comfort-food mashup of pasta, pork and kimchi ragu sauce, sesame seeds and smoked pecorino) and Steak Tartare that incorporates tater tots and caramelized onion dip.
So, how to create a beer list alongside those bold match-ups? Engert applied the flavor profile system he’s used at NRG’s other spots since 2006, dividing Hazel’s dozen drafts and 50-ish packaged offerings into Crisp, Malt, Hop, Roast, Fruit & Spice and Tart & Funky camps. But he also took a new approach borrowed from the wine world: The beers are listed by both the glass and by the bottle. The former category includes draft beers and single-serve cans and bottles while the latter encompasses large-format, sharable bottles. The result is that “more and more guests are selecting individual food pairing beers from a broader list than what draft would offer on its own,” Engert says. Complementing the global menu, the beer list is full of international curiosities: black IPAs and imperial porters from Estonia’s Põhjala, farmhouse ales from Au Baron in Northern France and fruited sours from Sweden’s Brewski.
Engert is also focusing on deep cuts from American wild ale brewers like Crooked Stave and Jolly Pumpkin, whose acidic and funky creations dovetail with chef Rubba’s rich, acidic and fermented dishes. Take Jolly Pumpkin’s IO Saison with Hazel’s Szechuan lamb noodle dish: “The mild funky, floral notes from the mixed-fermentation and the hibiscus flowers, rose hips and rose petals work nicely with the earthy flavors of the lamb,” Engert says. “Initial fruity sweetness and bright effervescence tame the chilies and the peppery spice.”
It’s the same thoughtful approach to pairings that diners at NRG’s other restaurants will recognize, but this time brought to bear on dishes like Crazy Rice with smoked eel, Grandma’s Zucchini Bread with foie gras mousse and Koji-brined fried chicken.
Freret Beer Room
New Orleans, Louisiana
You’d be forgiven if, upon hearing the name “Freret Beer Room” and noticing the distressed brick walls, molded aluminum chairs and thick wood tabletops ubiquitous at pubs across the country, you were shocked to find a menu that leaps from satsuma- glazed chicken confit with kimchi fried rice and a boiled egg to olive oil thyme pound cake served with Louisiana-grown strawberries. Your standard burgers-and-fries joint this is not.
“Our customers sometimes need a little help coming to grips with what they’re seeing on our menu,” says owner Eli Gay. “They’re surprised by the food. They say, ‘Wow, this is a real menu. This is a real restaurant.’”
But Freret Beer Room wasn’t meant, at least at first, to be the food destination it’s become. After a five-year stint at Alphabet Beer Co. in New York City, New Orleans native Eli Gay had initially returned to his birthplace with the intention of bringing the bustling East Coast beer scene home by opening a craft-focused beer bar, maybe a bottle shop. But he soon realized something was missing.
“Food is just such a huge part of our lives here,” Gay says. “We plan our schedules around our meals.”
Gay brought in Charles Vincent, a veteran of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s NOLA-based restaurants, who had himself recently returned to the city after opening soul food standout The Glass Onion in Charleston, South Carolina. Rich, savory flavors are the backbone of Vincent’s roux-based dishes, but they’re presented with a finesse that makes them easy partners for any of Freret’s 16 rotating drafts. Gay, who handles the beer-buying, focuses less on snatching every sparkly new or uber-rare keg he can find than he does on maintaining a balance of styles, flavors, intensities and alcohol contents to provide customers a gamut of pairing opportunities. A given menu might include Mudbug Brewery’s subtle King Cake blonde ale right next to Stillwater’s monstrous 13% ABV imperial stout, On Fleek—and any one of them could feature in the rotating “Pint and Wedge” special that matches brews with specialty cheeses from NOLA’s own St. James Cheese Co. A small but smart bottle menu contains a dozen 12-ounce bottles and ten or so largeformat brews grouped in a “for the table” section and meant, Gay says, as shareable replacements for bottles of wine.
Taken altogether—the food, the beer and the focus on the interaction between the two—there’s not really anything quite like Freret in New Orleans.
“We’re taking the standard restaurant story—a few beer bottles, a huge wine list—and we’re flipping it on its head,” Gay says. “We’re the backwards restaurant.”
The Beer Plant
Even in progressive Austin, it can be tough for a beer-loving vegan. Brussels sprouts always seem to conceal savory bits of bacon; potatoes are topped with an innocent but against-the-rules dollop of sour cream. And finding a vegetable-based entree at a beer-focused restaurant? Nearly impossible.
“It was pork belly everywhere,” says Ray McMackin, who’s been eating vegan since 1982 and drinking good beer for even longer. When he opened The Beer Plant, McMackin changed that. The six-month-old restaurant is Austin’s only—perhaps the only—strictly vegan/beer spot, featuring a menu that’s 100 percent free of animal products. And we mean “100 percent.”
McMackin does his level best to ensure even the beer that flows from 40 rotating taps is free of ingredients like lactose, honey or animal-based filtering agents. (Plans are in the works to partner with a local brewery for the firstever vegan milk stout made with coconut milk.) Carnivores might want to start with the buffalo cauliflower wings— stalks battered, tossed in burning orange buffalo sauce and served with a side of bleu cheese made from cashews—and move on to the Big Bend, a cheese- and mayo-slathered barbecue sandwich that swaps out beef for smoked seitan, a type of concentrated wheat gluten. These, McMackin says, are the “seduction pieces” meant to introduce eaters to The Beer Plant ethos: There’s no excuse for bland.
Once you’re convinced, plan to head back each month for Pints & Plants, a monthly beer pairing event during which Beer Plant Chef Lou Mustachio will create specific (and, yes, vegan) dishes meant to match the offerings on tap from a particular brewery. The series is set to kick off in April with a visit from renowned Austin brewery Jester King.
Brooklyn, New York
New York City famously knows its pizza. So, when a new pie-slinger garners praise from Lucky Peach and Bon Appetit, you know it’s got real mojo. Emmy Squared has made such a splash with its Detroit-style pies since opening in April 2016 that you’d almost be forgiven for not knowing about its next-level beer program.
Under the guidance of general manager and beer buyer Liz Wolferman, Emmy Squared’s 16 draft lines pour 90 percent New York-made beer (Wolferman might make an exception for a Hill Farmstead keg), all of it exceptional. The local bent might come at the expense of quality in any other market, but, as Wolferman puts it, “it’s one hell of a time to be drinking beer in New York.”
Breweries are producing a wide enough range of styles to line up a top-notch pilsner from Barrier next to a killer IPA from LIC Beer Project next to a complex farmhouse beer from Transmitter. Emmy Squared buys beer from seven different distributors to get the best kegs, cans and bottles, and has begun hosting periodic beer-education classes. “We care as much about beer as all the beer bars do; we just happen to have a full dinner menu,” Wolferman says.
9 Mile Station
As the beverage director at beloved Atlanta beer emporium Cypress Street, Robert Merrick was a beer geek’s best friend, organizing regular gatherings of the city’s brewers and striving to make his bar the first—or only—spot in the city to tap legendary ales.
At 9 Mile Station, however, Merrick’s goal is to bring the 90 percent of the market he considers “gateway drinkers” up to his level. This is as much figurative as it is literal; an “elevated beer garden,” 9 Mile is located on a rooftop overlooking the bustling Ponce City Market and requires an elevator ride to access it. Rows of picnic tables and built-in greenery serve as idyllic scenery for the meaty menu featuring pork belly, bratwurst by the inch and a $115 “picnic basket” packed with ribs, sandwiches and fixins for the whole crew. But it’s Merrick’s menu of 12 rotating taps and 20 or so bottles specifically chosen for their drinkability and pairing potential—and his earnest desire to educate drinkers—that’s truly uplifting.
“I’m coming to the tables and making recommendations for digestif beers, entree beers, postmeal beers,” Merrick says. “This isn’t where you come for a half-hour, grab one beer and leave—you’re coming for an experience.”
Try the lambic-cured, smoked mackerel. Really. While it can’t claim to be the sexiest dish on Publican Anker’s elevated, American bar-style menu, (that might be the fish sauce-flecked, burnt chile chicken wings or the perfectly textured, smooth-meets-crunchy avocado salad) it is perhaps the most evocative and delicious.
“With a Girardin Black Label 1882 gueuze alongside the lambic-cured fish, it’s just ridiculous,” says Adam Vavrick, beer director for Publican Anker and Publican’s other iterations: the original Publican, Publican Quality Meats and the Publican outpost at O’Hare airport. “You can think to yourself—it’s like synesthesia—that it takes you to being on a harbor in Antwerp and drinking a bunch of gueuze and seeing so much smoked fish around. It’s a cultural memory of that time and area.”
That’s the type of emotion and care poured into the beer programs at all of Publican’s locations. But Anker feels distinct; it’s a beer-lover’s Bermuda triangle of European tradition, New World treats like barrel-aged sours and English-style cask beer. Once you’re in its grasp, good luck finding an excuse not to order another pint and another plate. The bar’s single beer engine is Vavrick’s labor of love; he insists on only pouring bitters, pale ales and brown ales (sorry, no Starburst-infused IPA firkins). It’s a subtle opportunity to introduce classic cask ale to those who come seeking the Draai Laag wild ale or a To Øl IPA on the menu. “It’s so gratifying to see the geeks come in who are chasing the big imperial stouts and then seeing them sit down with a best bitter and get their minds blown,” Vavrick says.
Non-beer geeks are also welcomed; in fact, they’re plentiful in Anker’s fish bowl-like dining room, where huge windows on three sides make it feel like a dimly lit display case for the smartly dressed, creative types who might be discussing the newest cocktail bar in their neighborhood. It’s a space that could feel a bit generic, like the high-top tables and open kitchen could belong to any star-powered restaurant. That’s why it’s so comforting to tuck into the thoughtful, seasonal dishes and dance around the personal, quirky beer list.
“Something we constantly think about is, ‘If you went to my house, what beer would I serve you?’ This menu is like a snapshot into my brain,” Vavrick says.
San Diego, California
It’s a strange thing in a city known for its trailblazing beer scene and ocean-fresh seafood that, until Beerfish came along in June 2016, beer lovers craving seafood in San Diego had two lackluster choices: head to one of the several casual stands that speckle the boardwalk and settle for a slim picking of bottles, or drop major cash at a fine dining restaurant with a limited focus on good brews.
Abel Kaase, who also owns the venerable Ocean Beach beer and cocktail bar Sessions Public, decided to marry SD’s two great culinary assets. His North Park seafood spot—part beer garden, part counter-service fish shop—has a beer selection 30-drafts strong with a keen focus on locally brewed products and approachable, seafood- appropriate styles like pilsners, wheat beers and lighter Belgian ales as well as a decent chunk of IPAs (this is San Diego, after all). Ask the staff of Cicerone Certified Beer Servers for recommendations and they’ll probably suggest the best-selling Fish & Chips coated in beer batter made with Fall Brewing Co.’s Plenty For All pilsner or a couple Crispy Oyster Sliders and sambal remoulade paired with Societe’s The Harlot Belgian pale ale.
Plan your visit around Oktoberfish, a nowannual party that was celebrated last year with lobster bratwurst and the tapping of a cask of Green Flash Sea to Sea made with melon and Tabasco—perfect for oyster-pairing.