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Best Bites: Valley gastropubs: Feels like a tavern, tastes like a culinary gem

  • PHOTO BY ROBIN GOLDSTEIN

  • PHOTO BY ROBIN GOLDSTEIN

  • The People's Pint on Federal Street in Greenfield. There might be no place that better embodies the spirit of Western Massachusetts than this legendary brewpub, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary on New Year’s Day 2022. PHOTO BY CHELI MENNELLA

  • Samantha McDonough, a bartender at Luthier's where Lovebird Kitchen serves food, waits on customers. In addition to great food, drinks and live music, the space also boasts the Valley’s most impressive collection of wall-mounted guitars. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  •  Outside Lovebird Kitchen, a pop-up gastropub inside Luthier’s Co-op, which — on the basis of atmosphere alone — might just be the best first-or-second-date place in the Valley. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



For the Gazette
Monday, September 19, 2022

“As soon as I enter the door of a tavern,” wrote Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), author of the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, “I experience oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude. There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern.”

Taverns have been around since ancient Greece, but the word “pub” comes from “public house,” a British evolution of the tavern concept that dates back to medieval times. Dark wood, vulgar language, hearty laughter and free-flowing drinks: you know the recipe. There’s a pub called Sean’s in Athlone, Ireland, that has been slinging pints since the year 900.

What’s cool is that today’s great pubs are still pretty similar to the oldest ones in the world: neighborhood hideaways where you can kick back, forget the stress of work, and consider the meaning of life over a toast with friends. “A good local pub has much in common with a church,” wrote William Blake, “except that a pub is warmer, and there’s more conversation.”

But going to a pub solo is also a time-honored art. Generations of writers, including me, have done some of our best writing at pubs, spiritually energized by the mere physical proximity of perfect strangers.

For a couple of thousand years, pubs in Britain—and their imitators around the world—served only the barest of snacks to go with your drinks. As recently as the late 1970s, maybe one in ten true pubs served hot food. At the other 90%, you could get a bag of potato chips, salted nuts, or pork cracklings, and that was about it.

The term ”gastropub” was coined in 1991 by two guys who took over a pub called the Eagle in the Clerkenwell neighborhood of London. Their simple idea was to serve “restaurant-quality” meals in an otherwise traditional pub. The Eagle’s signature dish, since opening, has been a rump-steak sandwich with an onion-garlic-chili-red-wine marinade.

Clearly, the Eagle created a (happy) monster. Today, you can find establishments calling themselves ”gastropubs” in every Western country, serving every major world cuisine. Some of these are basically indistinguishable from restaurants — like the (now-closed) Spotted Pig, NYC’s first self-styled ”gastropub,” which won a Michelin star in 2006. But to me, that’s an abuse of the term. A real gastropub should first be a real pub, a cozy local gathering spot, a bastion of informality where stodgy Michelin inspectors, if they dared to show up, would be kicked out and possibly beaten up after demanding that their wine be decanted.

Lovebird Kitchen, Easthampton

How much do you trust me?

Enough to believe that some of the very best food in Western Massachusetts is currently being served inside a hipster guitar store that turns into a music bar at night?

You don’t have to trust me. Just try me. Go to Lovebird Kitchen, a pop-up gastropub inside Luthier’s Co-op, which — on the basis of atmosphere alone — might just be the best first-or-second-date place in the Valley (except for the awkwardness of the name — too soon!).

Walk in, sit down, and behold the Valley’s most impressive collection of wall-mounted guitars, beneath stamped-tin ceilings and dim mood lighting that would have satisfied the needs of Van Gogh in 1887 Paris. Stroll from the bar room over to the adjacent stage room, if you like, and be serenaded by a rotating cast of talented local musicians. Tip them well.

It might be hard to concentrate on the music, though, once you taste the food. You could start by swooning over a salad of impossibly sweet heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers, dressed with a pesto-like chimichurri and sunflower seeds that add soprano and bass notes to this timeless Eastern European vegetable mix. This might be followed by some of the best mac and cheese you’ve ever tasted.

On my last visit, my favorite thing of all was a special of expertly fried fish and stone-ground grits with collard greens. Not only would this preparation pass muster in New Orleans, it would get accolades. It’s simply world class.

It seems impossible to go wrong with anything that comes out of this kitchen. A sultry burger is made from dry-aged beef with katsu sauce (a sweet Japanese brown sauce that’s typically accompanies breaded, fried pork cutlets), and sandwiched in a brioche-like potato roll — all of it modestly sized and shaped so that you can take enjoyable-sized bites, in stark opposition to your usual jaw-wrenchingly vertical gourmet burger.

What makes Lovebird a true gastropub is the unpretentiousness of its menu. For example, they have a deep respect for America’s great fast-food tradition. Keep your eyes out for a killer knockoff of McDonald’s hash browns or fillet-o-fish, and for krab stick (a.k.a. surimi) in a sandwich. There’s no showing off here, in other words, no conspicuous consumption: it’s all about the taste — but, incredibly, it’s about the value too: their prices are so reasonable as to defy reason.

People’s Pint, Greenfield

There might be no place that better embodies the spirit of Western Massachusetts than this legendary Greenfield brewpub, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary on New Year’s Day 2022.

Greenfield in 1997, to put it mildly, wasn’t a diverse or ambitious culinary scene. The opening of the People’s Pint was hugely impactful for the whole area. From the start, it was a cottage operation with an eye on the horizons of good taste that kept both feet planted locally. They brewed their own beer and served soups, sandwiches, burgers, burritos and other unpretentious menu items elevated not by fancy culinary-speak but by their own skill and hard work. And so it remains.

Here are a few of the many reasons I respect them so much for the gifts the People’s Pint has given us over these last two and a half decades.

First, ploughman’s lunch! This takes us back to the early days of English pubs. Here it’s a simple meal of cheddar, pickles, delicious bread from Rise Above Bakery and red pepper jelly. Importantly, this is one of tons of vegetarian options at the People’s Pint. Peanut udon noodles have been another classic from the start, and almost every dish has a veggie version.

Second, the People’s Pint was one of the first places anywhere in the area, and certainly the first pub, to focus on local ingredients. This meant having a short, seasonal menu. BBQ pulled pork and wings have always been smoked in-house. Only local tomatoes go onto the local grass-fed burgers.

Third, the People’s Pint brought craft beer to Greenfield, and from the beginning, a classic English-style ale, Farmer Brown, was the headliner. There was also the west-coast-style Pied Piper IPA with Cascade hops, and today there’s a great Rye IPA. But none of People’s Pint beers are hop monsters. You can enjoy the delicate balance of these beers without a trip to Greenfield — they’re sold in large-format bottles at stores all over the Valley, and poured on tap at some places too (including Lovebirds).

Fourth, they’re really into reducing waste—food and otherwise—and they live this philosophy in myriad ways.

Fifth, Anthony Bourdain (RIP) came, ate here every day for a week, and filmed an episode of “Parts Unknown” at the People’s Pint, and the owners didn’t let it get to their head. I seriously doubt that the People’s Pint would ever call themselves a ”gastropub,” either. That’s a fancier title than they’d accept. They’re still the most unassuming folks around, representing our region with kindness, open arms, and delicious eats and drinks to all who enter.

Wurst Haus, Northampton

I claim that there’s only one true European-style pub in Northampton, and Wurst Haus is it. I think I stop by here more often than any other bar or restaurant in the city — whether it’s for a drink or simple meal with a friend, or a date with my laptop and a pint. Above all, the atmosphere is just what I’m looking for, any night of the week (except Mondays and Tuesdays, when they’re closed).

The theme here is Bavarian, and the décor — lacquered wood and blue-and-white-checkered flags and beer-themed bric-a-brac — carries it all the way through. Thoughtfully laid out booths, tables, and bar seats assure that pretty much any seat in the house is a good one.

Although I love all of our local breweries and beer bars that peddle new-wave IPAs — and you can get those here — Wurst Haus’s beer program is unique in that it focuses not only on Germany but specifically on Bavaria, the cradle of beer civilization. On the draft list you’ll find Helles lager from Spaten and Paulaner, Höfbrau’s Oktoberfest, strong beer from Ayinger, and the legendary Hefeweizen from Weihenstephaner, a brewery in Freising that has been making beer since 1040.

On the gastro side of this gastropub, fried cheese curds with honey mustard make for one of the best beer snacks in town and will satisfy any homesick Wisconsin native. Wings are well crisped and well seasoned. Sausages are the central main-course specialty, and you can try several of them in a sampler: classic bratwurst, wild boar, jalapeño cheddar.

My favorite menu item of all at Wurst Haus, though, is the big, moist pretzel served with a luscious beer cheese dipping sauce (also an optional sausage add-on). I usually ask for seconds and sometimes thirds on the beer cheese. I’ve eaten the stuff straight with a spoon when nobody was looking.

Riff’s Joint, Easthampton

Riff’s, hidden inside the Eastworks complex, is a bit hard to find, but your effort will be rewarded in spades. It’s equally excellent as a place to sip suds or to enjoy a casually delicious dinner. The lighting, décor, and furniture layout combine to create the ideal gastropub vibe, servers and bartenders are warm and welcoming, and the Asian-Mex fusion menu hits all the pleasure spots in your brain, especially if you’ve got a sweet tooth.

Among Riff’s starters, rotating egg rolls of the day and crispy, Gorgonzola-topped buffalo cauliflower are winners. Thai lettuce wraps are dessert-sweet, with plenty of crunch from chopped peanuts. House-cut fries are soft but brandish a deep potato flavor.

Burgers are some of the best in the Valley. I like the ”McLovin’,” a pickle-forward riff on the Big Mac: thousand island, caramelized onions, iceberg lettuce, and the all-important American cheese. No snobbery here! Hallelujah.

Tacos are made with local corn tortillas whose corn flavor really shines through; among their unusual fillings are blackened swordfish and sweet Korean pork belly with hoisin sauce. Elsewhere on the long menu, there’s also a Reuben that would make my grandmother Nonnie proud.

Johnny’s Tavern, Amherst

Take a quick peek into Johnny’s and you won’t want to leave. Dark wood, brown and maroon accents, well-laid-out booths, and romantic lighting create just the pub atmosphere you’re looking for — with some nice outdoor tables to boot — but the food will blow away your ordinary-pub expectations.

First of all, you can’t go wrong with burgers, fries, wings and other bar food. Go more gastro, though, and you’ll reap rewards. A pan-Asian pork belly appetizer, for instance, hits just the right balance of meat, fat, sugar, salt and tingly Sichuan peppercorn, and gets another hot, vegetal peck on the cheek from jalapeño.

There’s even more heat in Johnny’s fra diavolo, but it’s a balanced heat, not enough to overwhelm the multiple dimensions of texture that are the genius of this dish: thin, narrow, delicate tagliatelle cooked quickly enough to preserve their firmness; generous portions of silky scallops and meaty shrimp; a gentle coating of red sauce that gets extra acidity from white wine; and a sprinkle of bread crumbs that tops every bite with a light, garlicky crunch.

I generally like my fried chicken on the bone, but it’s impossible to argue with Johnny’s bone-out version. It’s juicy and tender as a chicken fillet can be, expertly battered, with spot-on buttermilk gravy and a rambunctious take on mashed potatoes, bursting with bacon and scallions.

At my last visit, even my nephew Azai’s order of kiddie pasta with butter, usually a bore for the grown-ups (come on, dude, when will you start eating sauce?), was done up gastro-style: instead of the slightly overcooked noodles you’d expect, it was a bowl of perfectly al dente bucatini, whose extreme length he loved exploring. I can’t remember the last time I stole more food from Azai’s plate.

Dirty Truth, Northampton

For beer geeks looking to sample a variety of Massachusetts’ most revered names in craft brewing, it doesn’t get any better than the Dirty Truth. There’s a great selection of sours, and on a lucky day, you come across a hard-to-find pour from Trillium, the Massachusetts craft brewery whose beers are sought after from coast to coast.

The perennial champion of Dirty Truth’s short-but-sweet menu is the fried-chicken sandwich with slaw. On the ever-changing menu, you might also find local seasonal specialties like bluefish paté and corn chowder. Plus there’s inexpensive steak frites (by 2022 standards, anyway). Skip the burgers, though.

Inside, the atmosphere is dark and inviting, with wooden high-top tables and a nice long bar, and in season, a pleasant wooden picnic-table area in front gives a touch of beer-garden charm to Main Street.

And there’s more…

I can’t conclude without mentioning a few other fantastic Northampton gastro-pubs that I’ve already covered in previous columns. First of all, there’s Packard’s, Fitzwilly’s (including the adjacent Toasted Owl Tavern) and Joe’s. All three of these local legends have classic pub atmospheres and gastro-worthy food that seems to be getting better by the day.

The Northampton Brewery, also covered in a previous column, is a great place to wash down your catfish bites with an English-style beer, and you can do it al fresco in their multi-tiered terraces. Finally, JJ’s Tavern in Florence is another classic pub that does a great job with their food — with another a great outdoor garden.

The Eagle has landed from London, and it’s spread its gastro-pub wings all over the Pioneer Valley. For this, our bellies are lucky. Bottoms up.

Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst, and the Five-College Area.” He serves remotely on the agricultural economics faculty of the University of California, Davis. He can be reached at rgoldstein@ucdavis.edu.