Public House: No Brit Stereotype
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, January 7, 2011
The buzz: As someone who once worked in a London pub to pay the bills, I've never understood why most "English pubs" in this country can't get it right. Too many seem like a poor copy of a Victorian boozer, all dark wood paneling, brass lamps and colored glass, or just your standard Americanized Irish pub with the decor tweaked - cricket bats instead of hurling sticks.
But Public House No. 7 in Falls Church, on the other hand, doesn't try to copy one of those quaint antique taverns that guidebooks always steer you to. The bar is a spacious, comfortable place that tries to get the basics right: Fuller's and Newcastle Brown ales on tap, English soccer and Sky Sports News on the big-screen TVs, and a large area left empty in the lounge for dart lanes. Specials are sketched onto chalkboards above two sides of the bar. There are dozens of seats, ranging from tables for 10 to smaller, high-topped tables for two, and they're spaced well, making this a prime place for groups to gather.
The whitewashed walls hold plenty to look at - Beatles and Who records, framed jerseys, naval flags, oil paintings depicting the country life - but where Public House No.7 shines is in the atmosphere that's summoned by the authentic cooking, the ales and the soundtrack that leans heavily on the era of the Rolling Stones and Derek and the Dominos. It's very much "Northern Working Man's Club" and less "idealized Dickensian pub."
Strangely enough, it took an Englishman to get it right. Mark English, a native of Skipton, West Yorkshire, cooked at Kinkead's and Rhodeside Grill before taking over the old Brinkley's Restaurant space last summer. "The English pubs around here weren't really doing it for me," he explains, so he decided to take matters into his own hands with Public House No. 7, which opened in November.
The scene: A real pub serves its neighborhood first and foremost, and Public House No. 7's neighbors have really taken to the place.
Matt and Suzanne Friedman, who live in Barcroft with their children, were perched at one table, sipping wine and raving about the "awesome" fish and chips.
"We'd driven by this place for seven years without stopping" when it was Brinkley's, says Matt, 42, until they read e-mails about the new pub on their neighborhood listserv.
"I came here with two girlfriends after work, and there were three neighbors at the bar," says Suzanne, 43. "It's so cool to have a neighborhood pub."
Over at the bar, John Kochka of Falls Church remembers being skeptical when he first heard that Brinkley's was becoming Public House No. 7. "I said, 'A British pub in Seven Corners? How's that going to work?' But I walked in and was pleasantly surprised," says Kochka, 49, who works as a staffing specialist for Manpower. "I like that they have Boddingtons, and the fish and chips are really good. It's really relaxed, the people are friendly. It's a good place to unwind."
"It's nice to have a pub like this in Northern Virginia," adds his friend Carlos Vallejo, a 41-year-old IT worker. "This area was missing a place where you could bring your family and co-workers for good conversations and good libations and quality food."
In your glass: With a name like Public House, the bar should have a better beer selection. Of the dozen draft beers, only Newcastle, Boddingtons and Fuller's ESB are British. (The malty ESB, though, really is a gem.) Guinness is poured beautifully. American drafts include Bell's Brown, Dominion Ale and Baltimore's Heavy Seas Loose Cannon. My wish: English cask ales have been proliferating in the past year, most recently down the road at Rustico in Ballston, and it would be great to see one here.
The bottle and can selection includes more English options - Tetley's, Old Speckled Hen, Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout - as well as your standard Bud and Amstel.
The cocktail menu, though, seems to have escaped from a 1980s fern bar. Right at the top is a white wine spritzer, which is a sure sign of what's ahead: too-sweet cocktails made with blue curacao, lime cordial or Grand Marnier. The British Bulldog may be "an ode to Winston Churchill," but I have to imagine that if you served the gin-loving prime minister a mix of vodka, Kahlua, butterscotch liqueur and cream, he'd make sure you never did it again.
On your plate: Forget what you heard about gastropubs - this is just bloody good and proper pub food. Start with the chip butty, which I'd never seen in this country. It's essentially a pile of golden-fried English chips in the middle of a soft buttered bun. Pure bliss when you're out at the pub and an essential part of the diet in the north of England.
The Lancashire hot pot is a rich lamb-and-veg stew baked with sliced potatoes on top. It's a simple dish, a cousin to the shepherd's pie, and the gravy-like sauce makes it a perfect rainy-day meal. The flaky puff-pasty crust of the steak and stout pie hides a savory filling of beef and mushrooms in gravy, with more gravy served on the side of chips.
Price points: Beers sell for $5.50 to $6. Take $1 off six draft beers every day between 4 and 7 p.m. during happy hour, but it's really worth your time to come on Thursday, when all 12 drafts are $3 between 3 and 9 p.m. (Wings are also half-price during this time, but honestly, you'd rather have the chip butty.)
Need to know: The entertainment schedule includes karaoke every Wednesday and Friday night, beginning at 9:30 p.m. Starting this month, live bands will be featured every Saturday, with acoustic acts on Thursday. Look out for Apple Core, an all-Beatles cover band that performed at the pub in November and will return Feb. 19.