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New York Develops a Taste for Gastropubs

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By David Farley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 24, 2009

On the corner of West 11th and Greenwich streets in the brownstone-laden West Village of New York, there once was a popular, French-inflected restaurant called Le Zoo. But five years after its shuttering, no one remembers Le Zoo, as if it had been wiped away with a wet cloth by a busy busboy. That's because the tenant that took over the space, the Spotted Pig, not only was an anomaly for the city (and the country) but has been perpetually packed ever since.

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Welcome to the gastropub. Not quite a bar and not quite a restaurant, the gastropub is a British hybrid of sorts, offering a casual-meets-refined atmosphere that welcomes beer drinkers and wine snobs, non-fussy eaters and foodies alike. The Spotted Pig, the brainchild of Ken Friedman, an American who logged time in London working as a rock band manager, was the first of its kind on American shores. And despite the popularity of the place, the biggest surprise was that no gastropubs followed in its wake, especially after Michelin awarded the place one of its prized stars in 2006. But the gastropub trend has finally caught on in New York, with the Houndstooth Pub, partly owned by members of the British rock band Snow Patrol, firing up its burners last fall; the Irish-accented Wilfie & Nell, just a few blocks from the Spotted Pig; Clerkenwell, which opened in April on the Lower East Side; Alchemy and ReBar in Brooklyn and, coming in July from the owners of the Spotted Pig, the Breslin.

But what, you're probably wondering, qualifies a place as a gastropub? There's no strict definition, but to understand what makes a great and classic gastropub, we have to go back to where this budding institution was founded.

The reputation of dining out in Great Britain was about as bad as its reputation for fine dentistry. But in the 1980s and '90s, things started to change (both in the dining scene and in dentistry). French and Italian and Japanese restaurants in London started getting noticed. And eventually, quietly, London became a great dining city. There was only one problem: All this fine dining added up to restaurants representing other nations and parts of the planet. There was no elevated version of the local fare.

Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Britain was in the middle of a recession, and many struggling breweries, which owned the leases on pubs, had to relinquish control of several drinking spots. One of those places was called the Eagle. And when Mike Belben and David Eyre took over the pub 1991 in London's Clerkenwell neighborhood, they had a great idea: Let's keep it a casual pub but serve great food.

And elevated British fare was born. In fact, the formula worked so well that according to the Time Out London Eating & Drinking Guide, 90 percent of London's pubs sell hot food today; 30 years ago, that figure was less than 10 percent. The annual Time Out guide has even given gastropubs their own category. Some of Britain's most acclaimed chefs have since opened gastropubs, including Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White. So it's no surprise that the trend would eventually hop over the Atlantic and land in the middle of New York and other major American cities.

The newest to hit the Big Apple is Clerkenwell (49 Clinton St., 212-614-3234, http://clerkenwellnyc.com).

New Zealand native and former Clerkenwell resident Stefan Ching became quite smitten with the concept. "English people love sitting around drinking," said Ching, "so if you could have a good pint of beer matched with excellent food, then it's perfect." Plus, Ching, a New Yorker for the past five years, added, the hip and eccentric Lower East Side reminds him of Clerkenwell, so opening a gastropub in the area was a no-brainer.

The interior decor, with black banquettes, mismatched chairs and vintage maps of the London Tube system tacked onto the walls, has a deliberate but not necessarily forced English feel. So does the menu, which is refreshingly affordable. The slow-roasted pork belly is melt-in-the-mouth soft, and the beef-and-ale pie, topped with a puff pastry, is hearty and delicious.

The Houndstooth (520 Eighth Ave., 212-643-0014, http://www.houndstoothpub.com), near Times Square, has a less intimate feel than most gastropubs. "We're a gastropub for the masses," says Nick Cohen, who owns the place with members of Snow Patrol. And he isn't lying. The huge space accommodates an eclectic mix of people, from tourists to commuters waiting to hop on a train at nearby Penn Station. The beer selection isn't anything special -- the usual British and Irish selections are on tap -- but fall-off-the-bone, Guinness-laced baby back ribs certainly make up for it.

Wilfie & Nell (228 W. Fourth St., 212-242-2990, http://www.wilfieandnell.com) and the Spotted Pig (314 W. 11th St., 212-620-0393, http://www.thespottedpig.com) have a more laid-back, tavernlike feel that doesn't scream "British pub," but, given the lingering scents of meaty goodness and, in the case of the Spotted Pig, the porcine paraphernalia on the walls, it would be hard to mistake these places for anything but gastropubs.

With exposed brick walls and big, comfy wooden tables, Wilfie & Nell has quickly built up a strong neighborhood following. Irish-born co-owner Mark Gibson wasn't thinking "gastropub" when he planned his place. "I just wanted to serve food that had high-quality ingredients," he said. And it seems he got what he wanted. The affordable menu here leans to traditional comfort food, with a hearty Guinness lamb shepherd's pie, juicy Berkshire pork sliders and a plus-size corned beef and gruyere cheese sandwich.

At the Spotted Pig, Ken Friedman, one of the owners, also didn't necessarily plan for the place to be a gastropub. "I'm not really sure what a gastropub is. I just wanted a place that was comfortable and where the food was as important as the drink."

Critics and local foodies alike can't seem to get enough of the menu, by British-born chef April Bloomfield, formerly in the kitchen at London's acclaimed River Cafe. Her offerings have a decidedly Italian accent. The popular sheep's ricotta gnudi (a soft, pillowy, cheesy gnocchi) in brown sage butter, and the massive burger (accompanied by a mountain of shoestring potatoes) have become signature dishes. But there are also some adventurous dishes you can't find elsewhere, such as surprisingly tasty grilled lamb heart and juicy pork rillettes. And it all seems to taste better when washed down with a pint of the syrupy brew Old Speckled Hen, served on tap.

Friedman likens the gastropub movement to the beginnings to another movement. "It's a lot like punk rock," he said, "which got its start because kids realized they could still start a band even without being able to afford the expensive equipment and rehearsal space. They did it anyway. And that's what a lot of chefs have done. They've done it in casual pubs."

David Farley last wrote for Travel about the upscale pubs of Prague.


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