Photo: Scott Suchman
Gastropubs, a portmanteau of “gastronomy” and “pub,” are a new hybrid of eating and drinking establishment rippling through the South. This genre of boisterous gathering spots, which originated in London in the early 1990s, meshes seamlessly with our region’s hottest food trends right now: local and seasonal; snout-to-tail whole-animal cooking; reconnection to our agrarian past; and a renewed celebration of artisan libations. All these elements play out in casual, tavern-like atmospheres, taking the pomp out of serious dining.
Atlanta's Holeman and Finch Public House jump-started the craze regionally in 2008. Three bartenders—Greg Best, Andy Minchow, and Regan Smith—partnered with Linton and Gina Hopkins of upscale Restaurant Eugene to create a stylish watering hole serving the foods they crave: charcuterie and pork belly buns, poached eggs with bacon over johnnycakes, fried peach pies. Cocktails equally reflect their tastes. The Holeman and Finch use of esoteric ingredients like small-batch vermouth and house-made Coca-Cola bitters has ushered in a new, post-Cosmopolitan era. It turns out the crowds were ready for it—the wait was more than an hour just three weeks into opening, and it’s never slowed down.
Virtue Feed & Grain, a newcomer in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, particularly embraces the whole-animal philosophy. Chef and co-owner Cathal Armstrong, a Dublin native, showcases his Irish roots with crubeens (pig’s feet fritters) and kidneys in red wine. The kitchen also offers less formidable dishes just as thoughtfully prepared, such as local rockfish over colcannon (mashed potatoes and kale) and flaky pigs in a blanket. Virtue fits 300 but still manages to create a neighborly pub vibe. Couples rock in porch swings facing the windows on the airy second floor. Kids (and nostalgic adults) play vintage Pac-Man arcade games in the back. Renowned drink master Todd Thrasher has formulated “hoptails,” in which beer and spirits mingle. The “Hoptail With No Name” particularly refreshes with its unusual alchemy of Hefeweizen, gin, and bourbon; think of a gin and tonic with more fizz and richer flavors.
Washington, D.C. Gastropubs
In fact, beer—once neglected in ambitious restaurants—often gets star treatment in gastropubs. Washington, D.C.’s Birch & Barley offers more than 500 options in bottles and 50 on draft, delineated by categories such as “Fruit & Spice” and “Tart & Funky.” Beer director Greg Engert can match the ideal ale to a brat burger or a starter of grilled octopus with pickled eggplant. At The Liberty in Charlotte, guests munch on boiled peanuts, freshly made pretzels, or a juicy pork barbecue sandwich and sip one of 150 beers while sitting among columns constructed from shiny metal kegs.
The elements of the gastropub trend coalesce brilliantly at Barley Swine, the foodie mecca of the moment in Austin. Last year chef/owner Bryce Gilmore moved his creative cooking out of a trailer called Odd Duck Farm to Trailer and into a rustic 30-seat space. One wood-planked red wall resembles the side of a barn. Dressed-down foodies gladly sit elbow-to-elbow to savor plates such as sautéed sweetbreads with potatoes, cubed braised bacon, and locally grown green beans drizzled with dill-buttermilk dressing. The tightly edited selection of craft beers at Barley Swine reads like a thoughtful wine list, and includes five options that are microbrewed locally.
New Orleans Gastropubs
Regardless of the boozy specialties or the signature dishes, the best gastropubs revel in hospitality. Sylvain, in a former bakery off Jackson Square in New Orleans, has accomplished the near impossible: It’s become a locals’ hangout in the touristy French Quarter. Good-humored partner Sean McCusker employs smart bartenders who serve cocktails heavy on bitters and vermouth at a bar built for lingering. Discerning residents stay for dinner, ordering plates of pickles and country ham, crispy duck confit, and caramel ice-cream floats made with locally brewed Abita root beer. Across town in the Garden District, Bouligny Tavern channels Louisiana gentility through a mid-century modern lens. Clean-lined sofas and chairs resemble a living room straight out of Mad Men. Nibbles like beignets filled with Gouda establish a New Orleans sense of place. And the gracious welcome by dapper manager Cary Palmer generates the same inviting bustle that is common to all the best Southern gastropubs.