7401 Greenwood Ave N, 784-2955
Open daily; food served Sun-Thurs 11:30 am-10 pm, Fri-Sat 11:30 am-11 pm; bar closes around midnight.
Here are the dirty words: "standard pub fare."
So we deemed the food at the 74th Street Ale House in our restaurant capsule reviews. Several Ale House loyalists protested, including daytime manager Rick Thamert, who took offense at the word "standard" and presumed that our working definition of "standard pub fare" was "French fries, hot wings, fish and chips, hamburger buns, pre-made salad dressings, soup-in-a-bag, [and] pickle spears."
Now, to me, "standard pub fare" are hardly fighting words: At best "standard" means something worthy of being a benchmark for other things, and at worst it means normal and perhaps ordinary. What it doesn't mean is substandard, which could be seen as offensive. Plus there's nothing wrong with hot wings, if, like me, you grew up not so far from Buffalo.
It is true, though, that I hadn't been to the Ale House myself (someone else wrote the mini review), so I gathered up my friend Ashley, an Englishman who's seen the inside of a fair number of pubs--he's also a scientist, and so knows something about standards--and headed up Phinney Ridge.
En route, Ashley gave me a primer on pub sociology. In England pubs are both more and less than they are here. Going to the pub is a normalized activity, less of the weekend bingefest you find in an American bar. People use their pubs as a sort of second living room, and are as regular about their favorite beer, cider, or scrumpy (a flat cider) as we are about coffee. Pub grub, according to Ashley, is beside the point: you're more likely go to a pub in your neighborhood, or the one that serves your favorite pint, than to seek one out for the food.
When we arrived, the Ale House was packed. The room has high ceilings, an attractive dark bar, and old-fashioned pub signs--a convivial space clearly filled with regulars, perhaps even grabbing a pint on the way home from work, as Ashley only thinks reasonable. The beer list is appropriately expansive and we lapped up our English-brewed Fuller's.
All right: With baked goat cheese salads, fish tacos, and gumbo on the menu, it's true that the 74th Street Ale House does not serve standard pub fare. Instead, it serves a tired form of global comfort food, some of which is quite good, some of which is mediocre. A bowl of warm curry-scented cashews ($4.95) was disturbingly appealing as we talked about Ashley's research specialty, heart disease. The chewy meat in the Caribbean pork soup ($3.95 a cup) overwhelmed the faintly curried broth it was floating in. A Reuben sandwich ($9.50) was tasty, but had a sanitized Seattle bent to it: easy on the cider-braised corned beef, and heavy on the marinated red cabbage that had yet to take on the pleasant must of fermentation. It was served with a bland pasta salad, but that was my fault for ordering pasta salad, a statistical loser when it comes to flavor.
I like the concept of a rotating pot pie, a lovable food if ever there was one. That night's crayfish version ($9.95) wasn't quite a pie, but more of a shellfish bisque with a puff pastry hat. It was agreeable in its own mild way, and the sparse, sweet crayfish bits were worth chasing around the bowl.
My meal was fine, but I felt like the Ale House's anti-bar-food striving left me yearning for well-executed versions of what, in my mind at least, is "standard pub fare": beer-braised beef, shepherd's pie, mustard pickles, and, yes, a good fish and chips. In the meantime, I officially recant the phrase "standard pub fare" in association with the 74th Street Ale House. But despite the outstanding beer, I still contend that it is standard upscale casual fare.
Note: This review left me wondering--where are the neighborhood restaurants where you can count on humble, compelling, and sturdy meals, pub food or otherwise, at modest prices (under $10 an entree)? Where you'd go even if you didn't live right down the block? If you have a favorite, let me know by sending an e-mail to my brand new Stranger e-mail address, sarad@ thestranger.com. And no chains, please.