Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Gastropub Roundup: Standard Tap, St. Stephen's Green, and Royal Tavern

If you ask me, the term "gastropub" is a little unfortunate, because when I hear the prefix "gastro-" the next thing that pops to mind is usually "-intestinal", which unless you're a real fan of nose-to-tail eating, is not that appetizing. Regardless, there's been a trend in our town for some time towards bars that serve food that goes beyond the usual buffalo wings and pre-formed burgers. Here are three bang-bang reviews of a few we've been to recently.

St. Stephen's Green is the newest place in this roundup. Located across the street from my high school in the spot that formerly housed before-its-time Belgian trendsetter Cuvee Notredame (and before that, an Italian place called Mezzaluna, if anyone remembers that), it's an open, airy kind of place with outdoor seating as well. I believe it's on its second head chef since it opened. The menu features some of the usual gastropub standbys, but dishes tend to have a lighter feel than some of its compatriots, to the point where some items on the menu (like the grilled chicken wrap) seem a little out of place. I had the catfish BLT, which contained some nicely crispy cornmeal-breaded catfish among the B, L and T. L's burger was not great, however – the burger itself lacked any kind of crust or char, and it was topped with some portobello mushrooms that had an almost otherworldly spongey texture. If you're in the neighborhood and get lucky by ordering the right thing, it's a good bet, but I wouldn't make a special trip.

St Stephens Green on Urbanspoon

The Royal Tavern on Passyunk Avenue has been around for a while now, and its culinary cred is a definite part of its appeal. Indeed, its owners went on to open the remarkably successful Cantina Los Caballitos (and Dos Segundos) which also stand alone on the strength of their food. The focus here is mostly American, with a bit of a Southern bent (ribs, mac 'n cheese, etc.), though the specials sometimes get pretty adventurous. First off, there's no excuse for not ordering the popcorn, which for $3 comes in a large paper bag smothered with truffle butter and pecorino. On my first visit this year, I was intrigued by the "Louisiana crawfish boil salad", featuring potatoes, corn and artichoke hearts along with the crawfish tails. It proved a little disappointing because it was served with a thick aioli drizzled around the plate rather than a thinner dressing that could have been tossed with the salad to bring the whole thing together. On my next visit, I had a far better salad of roasted cauliflower, chickpeas and red onion that hung together where the crawfish salad fell apart. I also had the delicious (if a bit spicy) mussels with chorizo and poblanos. L had a burger, which was excellent. All in all, the intriguing dining (and drinking) choices make this more worthy of a special visit, though if I had the luxury of living in the neighborhood I would probably end up dropping by often enough.

Royal Tavern on Urbanspoon

Last up, one of the joints that was early on the scene with the sophisticated pub fare, Standard Tap in Northern Liberties. The menu covers all the bases: mussels, steak frites, fried calamari, salads, and the all-important burger. Sitting in the upstairs bar area in the middle of Tropical Storm Hanna, the air and beer were a little warmer than ideal, but we still had a decent meal. A salad with apples, walnuts, and bacon also featured some really good goat cheese. My order of bratwurst with sauerkraut was three shockingly large links of brat atop some nice sauerkraut (watch for peppercorns) with sides of fingerling potatoes and collard greens. L got the hanger steak frites, which was a decent rendition though cooked a little unevenly, my mother went for a burger that had a nice charred flavor, and my father had a duck confit salad. As you'd expect, a nice selection of beers is available. The verdict? A solid bet for well-executed upscale bar food. However, the venerable Tap may have been an innovator when it showed up, but I think the menu may be due for a refresh.

Standard Tap on Urbanspoon

I think we've only hit on about 2% of the upscale-dining bars in Philly - we've yet to try places like the South Philly Tap Room, Memphis Taproom, and Ugly American, but I suppose we're bound to sooner or later. I think we have to appreciate the innovators in this field for raising the bar-food bar (if you'll pardon the pun) for in this city. (Did I mention Monk's, Nodding Head, North 3rd...) But, in this increasingly crowded field, the places that stand out are those that continue to innovate. It's not just getting your microbrew selection and burger and fries right anymore; it's about bringing something new to the table.

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