Tennessee Meat and Cheese Platter $12.75
Sausage-pretzel sandwiches: $7.25-$8.25
Draft pints $3-$6.75
Stop me if you've heard this one. A foodie walks into a bar ... and finds good food.
Once defined by greasy wings and flabby fries, bar food has changed a lot in recent years. In bigger cities, the change has been radical, as scores of so-called gastropubs compete for the customer who thinks a night at a bar should include extraordinary food. In Nashville, the scene is smaller but the evolution no less striking.
At chic speakeasy Patterson House and the East Side cocktail and fine dining destination Holland House, the drinks are elevated and so is the food.
One East Nashville newcomer, Village Pub and Beer Garden, is a different twist on the good-food-good-drinks concept but just as welcome. Nothing is highfalutin here. The beer list is well-curated but accessible. The menu isn't adventurous gastronomy, but the ingredients are fresh, local and well-chosen, and in at least one case (sandwiches crafted by stuffing giant, yeasty homemade pretzels) unlike anything else in town.
The pub is in a converted 1940s bungalow across the street from Riverside Village, the vintage commercial strip that's become a hot spot for ambitious food ventures (Mitchell Delicatessen, Olive & Sinclair chocolate, the new Bagel Face Bakery, Watanabe.)
In fact, David Mitchell, the man behind the deli, is an owner of Village Pub and designed the menu. He used all that he's learned about great deli meats and artisan cheeses to create a slate of beer-friendly dishes that can be shared by a group or relished by one.
Bartending veterans Jesse Hamilton and his wife Tracy own and run the business, aiming to make the pub a social hub of the neighborhood. "The idea is to make friends first, drink second," Jesse says.
On a recent Saturday, I and three hungry friends went to check it out. We arrived early (a little after 6 p.m.) because I'd heard the place can get crowded later, with patrons overflowing the deck that wraps around the house.
It was a muggy evening, so we chose to forgo the outdoor experience (reserving that for cooler evenings to come). Walking in the door I was struck by the fact that yes, indeed, this is a pub, not a froufrou bistro or ultra-lounge.
A prominently posted quote from W.C. Fields sets the tone: "A woman drove me to drink ... and I never had the decency to thank her." The central bar was lively and noisy, already ringed by revelers. Our party chose a quieter side dining room so we could converse about the beer and food we were about to share.
At that early hour, we had our pick of tables. One section of the bar opened onto our room, so there were a couple of gentlemen on bar stools enjoying their beers not far away.
The pub's soundtrack of blues and Southern rock was convivial but didn't prevent conversation, even when one of those bar patrons asked for the music to be turned up. (I'm not sure whether he was totally grooving on the Allman Brothers track or just trying to escape our discussion of gun control.)
Anyway, the point is, Village Pub is an authentic neighborhood bar. No hipster electronica, filmy curtains or pretensions. But the menu is a generous notch above what you'd traditionally expect at such a bar.
I love a good cheese plate, and the Tennessee Meat and Cheese platter didn't disappoint, combining three luscious products from our own state: Benton's aged country ham, Noble Farms herbed goat cheese and Tennessee Sweetwater Valley pesto cheddar. The ham was savory and a bit salty, balanced by the creamy, mild, herb-speckled goat cheese spread. Another local product, slices of Silke's bread from Clarksville, gave the cheese a nice place to perch — briefly that is, before being stuffed into our eager faces.
But it was the giant pretzels that really inspired rapture: yeasty, chewy woven wonders. They come singly or in pairs with optional (and delectable) Yazoo beer cheese dip.
Two sausages are the stars of Village Pub's unique pretzel sandwiches, devised by kitchen manager Jim Latham: a bratwurst or an Italian sausage, both cooked in Abita Turbo Dog, a delicious dark beer.
I liked the brat, topped with piquant sauerkraut, but the Italian sausage rocketed to the top of my best sandwiches in Nashville list. Juicy sausage is sliced open and topped with melted mozzarella, caramelized onions and tomato confit, a zesty tomato concentrate that brought the whole thing home.
Yes, but it's a pub, so what did we drink? Our excellent waitress was able to talk knowledgeably about the flavor profile of each of the 12 draft beers on the menu. (There are 11 more in bottles, and wine and liquor are also served.)
I'm a dark beer aficionado, so I chose Turbo Dog. My pale-ale-loving friend selected the Sweetwater IPA, which is especially fine on draft, while Magic Hat Brewery's summer beer (called Wacko) pleased the other beer lover in the group. For the second round, they swapped choices and were equally satisfied.
East Nashville's Sweet 16th Bakery provided two desserts that sealed the evening with a kiss of sugar: a chocolate chip brownie with raspberry and chocolate sauces, and coconut lemon pie.
By the end of the meal there was no question that Village Pub & Beer Garden has achieved its multiple goals: offering great beer and superior, locally sourced food that complements the suds while creating a friendly atmosphere where anyone can feel comfortable. (Well, almost anyone — it's a 21-and-up venue, so no kids. Nonetheless, smoking isn't permitted indoors, only on the deck.)
Village Pub & Beer Garden is open 4 p.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11:30 a.m. to midnight Sunday.
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