America’s appreciation for high-quality, hand-crafted ales and lagers has recently begun to rival that of the venerated European nations that have been brewing superior beers for centuries.
So, too, has come a relatively recent rise in American fondness for cuisine that would otherwise have been limited to fine-dining establishments, but is now turning up in the more casual environments of neighborhood pubs and taverns.
The term “gastropub” was first coined in England decades ago. The concept is similar to what is spreading rapidly across the United States — one that can also be traced to the longstanding traditions of French bistros, Italian trattorias or German biergartens. In each case the food menu complements a lavish assortment of beers, wines and spirits, and is often served by a staff trained to advise patrons on which beverage pairs best with which dish.
South Jersey could serve as the epicenter of the gastropub movement. Several exceptional examples of the concept have sprouted up in the area in recent years. Among the newest is Chelsea Five Gastropub, which is the centerpiece of Tropicana Atlantic City’s recently acquired Chelsea Tower, offering panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean from the Chelsea’s fifth floor.
“People want really good ingredients and a good dining experience without having to wear a suit or jacket and tie, and in a more casual dining environment,” says Demetrios Haronis, director of culinary operations for Tropicana and Chelsea Five. “We’ve really seen more of a demand for upscale dining where casual dress is acceptable, and where there’s something on the menu that will appeal to everybody.”
Haronis says the Chelsea Five’s crispy Brussels sprouts with balsamic vinaigrette has been hugely popular thus far, as has the lobster cheesecake, Cape May clam chowder, and the short-rib grilled cheese sandwich.
“We also have a lot of great burgers, and we’ve put a lot of time into elevating the quality of all our menu items since we opened (about a year ago),” Haronis says. “We’re very lucky to have our own butcher shop to be able to hand cut our own steaks and grind our own burgers. We also have a our own bake shop where we make all of our desserts.”
Each month, Chelsea Five pairs a craft beer or a specialty cocktail with a unique burger for its Burger of the Month benefit promotion. For each select beverage and burger purchased, $1 goes to a local charity that has been selected by the restaurant for that month. For example, in May, proceeds went to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey — Southern Branch. In June, the designated charity is Beacon Animal Rescue.
Another newcomer to the gastropub frenzy is the Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, part of a three beach-block Atlantic City revival called the Orange Loop.
“(With gastropubs) there’s a little more attention paid to the quality of the food and the beverage program as well, including spirits,” says Tennessee Avenue Executive Chef Charles Soreth. “We have 38 beers on tap, about 100 in bottles and cans, and an extensive list of wines and craft cocktails to pair with our food menu. With our draft beers, when a keg kicks we’ll often replace it with something different, and I’d say we only have about eight staples out of the 38 on tap that stay on the beer menu all the time.”
The Tenn, as it is being dubbed, has a burger selection that has drawn rave reviews, says Soreth, and a giant soft pretzel served with house mustard and a cheese sauce made with Dogfish head 60 Minute IPA has also been a popular choice.
“We have a custom beef blend from a company in Lancaster that we use in our burgers,” says Soreth. “We also have an outdoor area on the property — a beer garden, if you will, but not in the traditional German sense — with an outside bar connected to all the taps. There’s picnic tables, games like cornhole and Jenga out there, and now that the warm weather is here we’ll be adding some live outdoor entertainment as well.”
Leatherhead Pub is a mainland gastropub that opened about three years ago in Egg Harbor City. It is owned an operated by celebrated Chef Lisa Savage, and in keeping with the gastropub tradition has about 20 craft beers on tap that rotate with the seasons and with clientele’s personal tastes.
“I work real hard on our beer selection, as beer is a big part of what attracts people to us,” Savage says. “My partner and I are kind of beer snobs. We really like IPAs and New England- style beers, and there’s so many great breweries now — including several in New Jersey — and so much going on that it’s not your run-of-the mill list. Of the 20 on tap, only about a half dozen are staples that stay the same.
“And I love to cook, so I think our food menu is a little out of the ordinary too,” she adds. “Nearly everything is from scratch, and we’re doing the prep work for certain dishes all day long.”
Savage says Leatherhead typically offers different seafood and steak specials nightly, and each night of the week is devoted to certain specialties — such as burger night, Mexican night, pizza night, and a “burger, beer ‘n’ bourbon” combo night every Thursday.
The elder statesman of the South Jersey gastropub movement is the Tun Tavern, which remains, since 1998, the only establishment in Atlantic City that brews its own beer. Of a dozen beers the Tun has perpetually on tap, about eight are those made by the establishment’s brewmaster Brad Judge, according to the Tun’s marketing manager Diane Tharp.
Among its current selections are the Vienna Lager, Whitecap Barrel Aged Stout, Four Grain Saison, and Red Lips American Amber Ale.
“And everything we have on tap is available to take out in 64-ounce growlers, or in crowlers, which are 32-ounce cans we seal in a machine we have behind the bar,” Tharp says.
The fare the Tun is famous for includes its roadhouse chili made with beer they brew, says Tharp.
“We also have five different styles of wings, a variety of burgers and cheesesteaks, a New York strip steak and a cowboy steak, and a sun-dried tomato hummus that’s really popular,” she says.
At 5-years-old, Wingcraft Kitchen & Beer Bar, located at Atlantic City’s Tanger Outlets, would also qualify as one of the veterans of the local gastropub boom.
“I remember when we opened in June of 2014, craft beer was still considered a passing fad by many of the big beer companies and others,” says Nick Ballias, Wingcraft’s owner. “Nobody really believed in it 100 percent, but I thought otherwise. And I took a big chance to exclusively say we don’t serve anything but craft beer. That was kind of risky, but it’s true — all 40 of the beers I have on tap are made by craft breweries, including one made exclusively for us.”
A blonde ale called Gus’s Lawnmower World — named after a business Ballias’ father owned in Hammonton — is brewed exclusively for Wingcraft by Hammonton’s Three 3’s Brewery. It is also the beer used to cook Wingcraft’s beer-battered cod in its made-daily fish ‘n’ chips.
“When we put a beer on tap we obviously take the seasons and different flavors into account, but we also seek out new beers and craft breweries that constantly change flavor profiles” Ballias says. “That allows people to try new brews each time they visit us.
“And since we’re serving a lot of the best craft beer, with a lot of thought and attention put into them, I wanted to make the food match the quality of the beer. We make everything from scratch as much as possible, and we seek out and source the highest-quality ingredients. Some places may not see the value in paying more for a higher cut of meat, but if it keeps people coming back, it’s worth it.”
A new name on a popular establishment that was shelved during the Revel closure returns inside Ocean Casino Resort. Now called Villain & Saint, Executive Chef Dean Dupuis says the rebranded gastropub is every bit as popular as the former Mussel Bar at Revel, and maybe even more so.
“I think people come in and are immediately caught up by the environment,” Dupuis says. “It’s a somewhat casual environment, but I think people are a bit shocked by the quality of food we put out in a place that looks so casual.
“They come in and see the motorcycle hanging from the ceiling (a custom chopper business partner and Michelin Star chef Robert Wiedmaier owns), they hear the music playing, and they might think the food is sort of average or even lackluster compared to the fine-dining restaurants in the building. Ours is not. It’s more fun and approachable food, but the quality is similar.
“We bring in Wagyu (premium Japanese) beef for our burgers and grind it ourselves, we make the buns and the jams and smoke the mozzarella, and probably put more time and energy into our burgers than anywhere else in town,” Dupuis says. “And anytime I can get local products from the area, I will. I get my tilefish, clams and scallops locally and when Jersey tomatoes are not in season, I don’t have tomatoes on my menu at all. Once tomato season is over, I don’t use tomatoes. I like to stick to the roots of what feels good to me as a chef. Things like that are what really set us apart.”
Villain & Saint’s craft beer selection is both locally and worldwide sourced.
“Because Chef Weidmaier is from Belgium, not only do we have local stuff but we get Belgian, German and European beers that are hard to get, and hard to find anywhere else,” Dupuis says. “We have that sort of clout. Our house beer is made exclusively for us in Belgium. It’s a double blonde pale ale called Antigoon by Robert Weidmaier.”