FOR ALL ITS red-blooded, flag-waving logo, Hero's in Manassas harks back to a kinder, gentler era when idols were something other than "celebrities," when the self-reliant loner, either real or imaginary -- Lindbergh, Ty Cobb, Bogart and Gary Cooper, among those pictured on the walls -- was the all-American ideal. (The restaurant was originally called Heroes, but it fell victim to typographical confusion.)
At Hero's now, at nightfall, the new Americans gather. The young management pros park four-wheel-drives and GM sports cars, the salarymen commuters step off the Amtrak platform, walk between the parked cars and climb the wrought-iron staircase to the bare wood bar; and between the old envelope-pushers (of the right stuff) and the new envelope-pushers (of the write stuff) there is a camaraderie so easy that it turns those old movie posters and promo stills from decorations into family photos, the sort one takes for granted.
This is a fine, discreet evocation, traditional without being "nostalgic," and comfortably suited to Hero's spot at the heart of Old Town Manassas (9412 Main Street; 703/330-1534). (The martial heroes of Manassas's more melancholy past are not specifically saluted; perhaps their presence would be too awesome for comfort.)
Tradition is also the spirit of the menu -- hearty family favorites, leavened with a few new American standards -- but Hero's elevation of the "old reliable," the homey homebrew of the true local pub, is just short of sublime. Hero's has 14 taps, from which flow not only its new signature dark, Victory Lager, but four other local brews: Gold Cup, Dark Horse, Dominion Lager and Wild Goose. In addition, Hero's taps the dear-and-near Olde Heurich (it replaced the venerable Samuel Adams, and regulars gasped; but it now outsells uncle Sam better than two to one) and all five Anchor brands, or will, as soon as the Christmas beer runs out, at which time the Old Foghorn -- yes! -- will roar in.
Hero's also carries two national brands of light beer, but the signs indicate that the Hero's crash course in beer quality is making headway -- one of them is about to come off. That would be the light beer with the heavily couch-potato spare-tire spokesmen. The other, which has a '90s/aerobics/young and restless spokespersons campaign -- no taste, no waist -- is doing well among the body-conscious but taste-bud deficient.
Hero's is the love child of Pat Patton, who started out with the Clyde's chain and learned at least two important facts; people want food that is good, varied but not too "creative," and they want a friendly, relaxing atmosphere. (That they're tired of busy decor Patton may have observed in the breach.)
The menu ranges from nibblies and chili (maybe a little too American, but then we're fervent about chili) to pastas (primavera, seafood and the old-style spaghetti with meat sauce) and burgers to grills (steak/chicken/fresh fish) to the daily specials, stroganoff and roast duck. The music is good, apparently random-play CD alternative AOR; the jukebox looks back a little farther, though not so far as the posters.
If its heart is in the past, Hero's head is definitely in the future. The clientele is one hint, not so much the "new Manassas" suburbanites -- not so upscale as to be self-conscious, and in fact multi-generational family groups are common -- as the revitalize-Old Town merchants and professional types.
"Not having Bud means I don't have to have a dress code," Patton said in one of the funniest and most succinct exegeses of the new/old NoVa bar dichotomy. "We don't see any flannel shirts or Harley-Davidson logos."
Patton also has expansion stars in his eyes. Although Victory Lager is currently produced at Old Dominion Brewing Co. in Sterling, Patton hopes eventually to transform Hero's into a true brewpub and produce his own, perhaps realigning the tavern's view to look out over the brewery in true home style. Business has been steady, he says, recession nothwithstanding; and beginning in October, when (in theory, at least), the Virginia commuter rail also begins pulling up to the Old Town Manassas platform, Hero's is likely to become a virtual victual hero to all sorts of historic district day-trippers, not to mention traumatized veterans of the Tysons Corner parking wars.
Incidentally, though we're still evaluating the Victory Lager label -- Miss Liberty certainly fits the image, but do maidens drink beer? -- we report that it's a very good, assertive but not astringent brew, sort of a Teddy Roosevelt bully-boy brew, perhaps the best recipe yet from Old Dominion. Patton decided to go with an unfiltered beer after tasting the lager at King Street Blues in Old Town Alexandria, also produced by Old Dominion.
Which brings us to what we hope will be a clarification -- a light, tight and brite one. The joke we meant to tell a few weeks ago about King Street Blues and its Virginia Native Brite beer went something like: It's not on King Street (St. Asaph), not blues style (strictly jukebox), not "bright" beer (unfiltered) . . . and not Virginia Native, which is custom-brewed by the Virginia Brewing (Gold Cup/Dark Horse) folks for the Union Street Public House. You can see the problem.
The similarity is the result of the "divorce" of the owners of the Union Street Pub, which then included the founder of King Street Blues. They, not Virginia Brewing Co., had trademarked the name "Virginia Native," and rights to the phrase became part of the mutual alimony. However, confusion over the two brands is spreading (as you can see), and the original Union Street recipe has been informally re-nicknamed "Taproom Draft." Besides which, Union Street Pub has added another Virginia Brewing recipe altogether, Governor's golden lager, which was originally developed for an upscale grocery chain in the Carolinas.
While we're on confusing customizing, injera fans might be interested to note that the "new Ethiopian beer" you may have seen touted in Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants in Georgetown and Adams-Morgan is also a local product -- a pale amber called St. George's, modeled on an import but brewed by the British Brewing Co. of Glen Burnie in response to area restaurateurs' frustration at getting irregular shipments from abroad. That's one way to slay the import dragon.