A few years ago, craft beer aficionados were arguing over whether IPAs were getting too hoppy. Now, they’re debating the relative merits of various sour beers, or whether lagers really are about to make a comeback.
Where they’re having those discussions, and what they’re eating as they sip their favorite brews, is also changing dramatically. It wasn’t that long ago that the gathering place was a traditional pub, and the food was predictable. Microwave nachos were a fine accompaniment for a Bud Light, but they just didn’t measure up to a serious craft beer.
Lately, a new generation of beer-centric restaurants have been addressing the problem. These newcomers don’t look like a traditional pub, and they don’t call themselves a pub. Taproom, sure. Or hybrid bottle shop, or even plain old eatery. About the only things they have in common with traditional pubs is tap handles.
Instead of dark woodwork, low lighting and neon beer signs, the look is likely to be open, contemporary and utilitarian. Instead of sports screen TVs, pet-friendly patios are the rule.
OK, maybe nachos do turn up on some of their menus, but you can bet it will be an upgrade — braised pork nachos, say, with cilantro lime crema. In fact, the food at these places is deceptively modest: hot dogs, flatbreads and such, and invariably a few trendy, beer-friendly item such as poutine or Nashville hot chicken.
Bottle Dog, Spike’s Hot Chicken & Dogs, and Wilson’s Eatery are prime examples, where the food is worth checking out even if you don’t know the difference between a gose and a kolsch.
1053-C E. Whitaker Mill Road, Raleigh
919-977-5442 or wilsonseatery.com
▪ The vibe: Warehouse conversion with an industrial look reinforced by exposed ductwork, corrugate metal walls, concrete floors and and a welcoming “robot” fashioned from repurposed machine parts. A large two-level patio is a favored spot when weather cooperates.
▪ The grub: Chef Jason Tomaszewski previously worked for nine years at Poole’s Diner, eventually working his way up to chef de cuisine. His experience shows in the culinary ambitiousness hidden in Wilson’s deceptively modest-looking menu.
Exemplary house-fried pork cracklings are served with pimento cheese, also made in-house. Pretty much everything is made on premises, for that matter, from the dough for flatbreads (try the steak and arugula, punctuated with blue cheese and dollops of chimichurri) to the eight-hour braised pork on the carnitas torta. The torta is one of a half-dozen sandwiches on a list that also includes a first-rate double cheeseburger on a brioche bun.
▪ The suds: Wilson’s is a spinoff of Lynnwood Brewing Company, located just across the parking lot in the same converted warehouse complex. The draft beer selection showcases LBC brews, a varied offering ranging from Czech Yourself pilsner to the best-selling Hop on Top IPA, plus seasonal brews such as Deez Coconuts porter and Tangerine Wheat.
There’s a modest wine selection, too, but take a hard pass on the “craft cocktails” unless your idea of a Manhattan is free-poured and served over crushed ice.
▪ Juicy tidbits: Owner Ted Dwyer named Wilson’s for his dog (yes, the patio is pet-friendly). A couple of sandwiches bear his kids’ nicknames: Cha Cha’s BLT, and Ell Bell’s double cheeseburger.
Spike’s Hot Chicken & Dogs
370 E. Main St., Carrboro
919-240-5851 or spikeshotchicken.com
▪ The vibe: Whimsically eclectic, with colorful walls covered in old license plates, empty picture frames and a recurring Elvis motif, including a caricature of the singer and a collection of Cadillac hubcaps.
▪ The grub: The name says it all. If you’re not in the market for Nashville-style hot chicken or a hot dog, look elsewhere. But if you’re in the mood for either, this is the place. The chicken, offered in five heat levels ranging from Teddy Bear to Hunk of Burning Love, is available in a variety of combinations from wings to a quarter bird (light or dark meat).
Served “Nashville-style” on a slice of white bread with pickle chips, plates also come with your choice of two sides, with winning options including red potato salad and bacon-spiked collard greens.
Dogs, served on a grilled New England-style roll, are offered in eight variations, from Da Dog (Chicago style) to the Snorin’ Dog, a punny play on the bacon-wrapped Sonoran dog that originated in that Mexican state. Spike’s all-beef Sabrett dogs are 10-inchers, so if you usually order two, bear that in mind.
▪ The suds: The draft beer list is hop-lover’s heaven, as IPAs account for nearly half the 16 brews on tap. The rest of the list offers a varied selection for everyone else, from Ponysaurus pilsner to Left Hand milk stout. There’s even a couple of options for cider fans, including Bull City Ciderworks’ Cherry Tart cider.
▪ Juicy tidbits: Spike’s is named in honor of owner Scott Kleczkowski’s father, whom he fondly remembers grilling hot dogs when Scott was a boy in Connecticut (hence the New England-style buns).
8306 Chapel Hill Road, Cary
919-694-5377 or bottledogcary.com
▪ The vibe: As the name suggests, Bottle Dog is a bottle shop, so the look is utilitarian, dominated by shelves and refrigerated cases of bottled beers, and a few tables scattered across a tile floor. Decorative touches are pretty much limited to craft beer posters, cheeky signs (“Bar Rules / 1. bartender is always right. 2. If bartender is wrong, see rule #1.”), and a small ceramic pink elephant on a shelf behind the bar.
▪ The grub: An exceptionally broad menu is divided into nine sections, including flatbreads, wings, hot dogs, and poutine. An entire section is devoted to duck fat-fried fare, from jalapeño bottle caps to bacon (talk about gilding the lily).
The Bottle Dog, an animal protein bomb featuring a bacon-wrapped all-beef hot dog loaded with hot fried chicken nuggets and house-smoked Montreal style brisket, will have carnivores wagging their tails. Others will go for duck fat-fried cheese curds, a fried chicken sandwich with a more than respectable spice kick, or any of the poutines.
▪ The suds: A rotating selection of 12 beers on tap, including a few local brews. More than 100 bottled beers are available to drink on premises or take home.
▪ Juicy tidbits: Bottle Dog lives up to the second half of its name with a dog-friendly patio.