Of all the projects in Atlantic City’s Orange Loop, perhaps none was as highly anticipated as the opening of Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall. This brand new hotspot is the latest facelift to be given to Tennessee Avenue, a block that contained little more than urban blight just a few years ago. But lately it seems all anyone can talk about is the rebirth of this area, with its new coffee shop (Hayday), chocolate bar (MaDe) and yoga studio (The Leadership Studio). Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall sits as the crown jewel of these properties.

The man behind much of the concept of Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall is Scott Cronick, a known local food critic who serves as Director of Entertainment Publications for The Press of Atlantic City. Cronick teamed up with entrepreneur Mark Callazzo, Chef Charles Soreth and consultant Lee Sanchez on the project, though Cronick’s restaurant experience was solely rooted around eating and critiquing them as opposed to running one.

“When I proposed to my wife, I actually promised her I would never open a restaurant,” Cronick remembers. “But when Mark and I started talking about re-shaping a neighborhood as opposed to just opening a restaurant or bar, I got excited. And if there are two things I know, it’s food and beer, so if I was ever going to have my own business, a beer hall would be it. And the fact that I get to be part of an overall concept and team made it a no-brainer.”

But the name can be a bit tricky. For those picturing a giant, cavernous space with long communal tables and massive beer steins, think again. This spot is less German-style beer hall and more kicked-up local tavern, with its focus being on hard-to-find craft beers and gourmet pub grub.

“We have been going through so much beer that by the time people read this, we might not have it on tap anymore,” Cronick remarks. “And we don’t back up beers with the same beer. We turn taps quickly so that if you walk in this week, most of the taps won’t be the same next week. But right now, Troeg’s Mad Elf is always a winter winner; local brewery Ludlam Island’s Thunder Jacket lives up to its creamy black and white milkshake stout description; and Spellbound’s Living the Dream is a bourbon barrel-aged beauty of a stout that you won’t find anywhere else.”

As for the pub grub, it all starts with appetizers that go from fresh cut fries and tater tots to housemade chips and dip to the incredibly popular Pennsylvania Ave. Soft Pretzel which comes served with a Dogfish Head 60-minute cheese sauce. “Just about every table that sits down to eat orders one,” Soreth says, the chef at Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall.

If the name Charles Soreth sounds familiar, that’s because he has been in the Atlantic City culinary scene for more than 20 years. Most recently he was the man behind Sublime Seafood, an Egg Harbor Township spot that he sold to partner with Cronick and Company. Cronick for one could not be happier about that.

“He’s a great friend and a true believer in the Orange Loop project. He loves music as much as I do, even though he’s a hippie” he laughs. But lastly, I have admired his cooking — and have gotten fatter because of it — ever since I met him when he helmed Sammy D’s and all of the BR Guest restaurants. Yes, he can cook with the best of them in any gourmet place, but he understands people want great comfort food, and few people do it better.”

The bulk of the menu consists of bar food classics and although that may sound a bit ho-hum, the use of unexpected flavors and textures is the key to the incredible menu here. The Kentucky Ave. Chicken Sandwich is a near perfect rendition of a familiar favorite, but makes itself unforgettable thanks to outside-the-box toppings such as kimchee slaw and sweet chili aioli that complement each other so well you’ll wonder why this isn’t a standard topping for this type of sandwich. And the seeded Formica Bros. bun it comes on serves as the perfect buttery vessel to hold it all in. “The surprise hit of the menu is that chicken sandwich,” Soreth notes.

The Phish Sandwich is another menu item that is slowly becoming a legend, thanks to its irresistible combo of tempura-battered cod, bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado, sriracha and tartar sauce on toasted semolina bread.

A great time to head in and sample a few items is during their happy hour, which runs from 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays with $5 unique bites that include grilled chicken sliders with mozzarella and fresh tomato with homemade pesto, a single burger plus $5 select beers and two drinks on tap: The Perfect Tenn Margarita and the A.C. Tea, the Beer Hall’s version of a long island ice tea made with Tito’s Vodka that is becoming the bar’s signature drink quickly.

“We have a full bar and the AC Tea rivals beer sales on some nights,” Cronick says. “People are just raving about it. It’s delicious and potent. If you were a fan of The Pearl in Somers Point, this is our Zombie.”

The Big Cheese

As a food critic, one might expect Cronick to only support haughty fancy-pants dishes, but the food at the Beer Hall actually suits his style and rotund physique perfectly. Cronick is well known for is being one half of A.C. Weekly’s Fat Boy Munch Club (the other half being me) a team which focuses on the more indulgent foods available locally. So it’s naturally expected that he may be behind the inclusion of some of the more gluttonously tasty menu items. Which leads one to wonder — what is the most over-the-top item served at the Beer Hall?

“There are many!” Cronick assures us. “Tater tots loaded with brisket chili, beer cheese and sour cream; a hot dog wrapped in bacon and topped with guacamole and chipotle cream and served on a split-top buttered roll; and fried bread pudding bites. But hands down, the most ridiculously fattening and delicious thing has to be the “Hell in a Bucket,” which lives up to its name thanks to a half pound of a special blend of angus beef, New Jersey’s favorite meat — pork roll, not Taylor ham — cheese, a sunny-side-up egg, caramelized onions and chipotle ketchup on a buttered, toasted English muffin. This may redefine gluttony in A.C.”

Those looking to not end up in the E.R. may do best splitting a dish or two. While you may be able to avoid cardiac arrest, Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall is not intended to be built around eating light.

“It’s comfort food with a modern twist,” Soreth says when describing the menu concept. “It’s all things that you will recognize, but just tweaked a bit to add a little fun.”

Of course it’s not all unhealthy. There are salads, fresh mahi fish tacos, big plates like sautéed jumbo lump crab cakes and steak frites, and a secret-for-now vegetarian menu that includes cauliflower tacos, hummus and more.

“We are two doors down from the yoga studio, so we definitely have plenty of healthy options and will be even hosting some fitness events in our beer yard,” Cronick says.

For those about to rock

Fun is definitely a key element in the overall design of Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall. The space is heavily decorated with colorful art pieces done by local artists, with the lion’s share of the hanging canvases being pop art works by Mike Bell that incorporate old monster movie characters like Frankenstein and Dracula, with a rock ’n’ roll twist.

Speaking of rock ‘n’ roll, live music is featured regularly, mostly consisting of acoustic acts like Ken Shiles and CiBon and Cheezy and the Crackers Duo. Although bigger acts are a possibility as well for the future.

“We will have full bands outside when the beer yard opens, and we also plan to close Tennessee Avenue for special events and festivals that could include multiple bands throughout a day or weekend,” says Cronick. “Inside, it just makes sense to do acoustic acts. It creates a very hip, fun, casual vibe that we’re looking to create here.”

Outside is a giant outdoor space with a full bar and enough picnic tables to supply a small campground. A firepit stands at center stage, surrounded by a circle of Adirondack chairs. The outside is a bit of a chameleon — one can imagine this being the ultimate summer party space as well as a top draw for a cozy atmosphere on a crisp autumn night.

Won’t you be their neighbor?

Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall wears many hats, but perhaps its most important one is that of a good neighbor. The plans are not to make a few quick bucks and get out, but to help change the vibe of an area that once seemed hopeless.

“We are serious about changing the landscape of that neighborhood,” Cronick insists. “A friend of mine always said, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ And that’s how we are looking at Tennessee Avenue and The Orange Loop. How do you change Atlantic City? One street at a time.”

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