Sunday, June 24, 2012

WiTList - Good Old Places for a Pint

Barley, hops, yeast, water; seems like such a simple concoction. Yet somehow, a beer is never just a beer. It’s a round with a few friends or a toast in celebration. It brings people together and consoles in silence. And in so many places around the globe, it is a lifestyle, an attraction, an identity.

That’s why it takes a truly special place to serve it well and serve it in abundance. True, any old bar can pour from a tap or crank the top off a Bud Light bottle for you. But only a unique, dedicated establishment becomes a watering hole. There is no pretension, no expectation, no snobbery or braggadocio. Just an empty seat, a lengthy beer list and a perfect pour every time.

These are the places where everybody knows your name, if you’re lucky enough to live close enough to be a regular. And if you’re just passing through, these are the places that’ll learn your name, at least for the night, long enough to say it in a toast.

My choices:

10. L'Oncle Antoine - Quebec City, Canada
A cavernous pub in the shadows of Old Quebec’s walls, L’Oncle Antoine has taken Quebec City’s unique brand of Euro-hospitality, extracted all pretense and soaked it in local brew. The extensive beer list features everything from the traditional American domestic and imports to Quebec’s own, such as Unibrau (my favorites being the Troi Pistoles or Fin du Monde). After a day of strolling the cobblestone streets or sipping expensive cocktails in the lounge at Chateau Frontenac, a bottle of brew in a dark, British-style pub is the right remedy for escaping the crowds. Antoine will keep your mind occupied with a case full of board games, playing cards and chess pieces, just to make sure you don’t let the potent local suds overwhelm the brain too quickly. Otherwise, strike up a conversation with the waitress or barkeep, catch a soccer match on the tube or just savor every sip in the Great White North.  

9. Wynkoop Brewery, Denver, Colorado

Three words: Chili Pepper Beer. Patty's Chile Beer, to be exact, a Wynkoop house specialty. The award-winning brew comes infused with Anaheim chiles and smoked Ancho peppers. It is light, with a golden color and a slightly reddish hue. The pepper aroma hits you before the smoky flavor on first sip. The chile bite is there but not overpowering and it goes down surprisingly smooth. There's a savory heat that builds up the palette from a traditional German-type beer to something totally unique and flavorful.

Colorado's micro-brew community is legendary and you can't go wrong with most any choice in the Rockies. But Wynkoop has staked a claim near the top. For a full explanation of why Wynkoop is king, read here

8. Anodyne, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Some folks have been known to call me an arrogant bastard. Therefore, anywhere with Arrogant Bastard on tap is all right with me. Throw in a large bottle selection (over 120 by their count), including some great locals like the clean Alien Amber, and you’ve got yourself a full-on, fun-time beer bar. Located on one of ABQ’s main drags, this upstairs, dimly lit pool hall is bedazzled in beer paraphernalia and jukeboxes. It has an edgy hipster vibe that is surprisingly approachable and welcoming, in part due to the comfy seating possibilities at the top of the staircase. The regulars streamed in, clapping each other on the backs and petting their dogs, which health codes or not, were just as welcomed as their bipedal owners. Sidestepping a canine did make a couple billiard shots harder than they should’ve been, but then again I didn’t mind the excuse for missing. The name - Anodyne - means, "a medicine that relieves or allays pain." Exactly. 

check them out at:

7. Trinity Brewhouse, Providence, Rhode Island

I have an affinity for Trinity. Mostly because a good amount of my college days were spent in the basement at this Providence, Rhode Island microbrewery, where the dark walls, tables and corners make it the perfect place to unwind after (or during, or instead of) a study session. Upstairs they serve spectacular burgers to help sop up the pints of award-winning beer, like the Rhode Island IPA. I’m a huge fan of the Redrum Imperial, almost as much as I’m a fan of the mural high along the dining room wall depicting famous musicians enjoying a brew. Can you spot John Lennon and Kurt Cobain sharing a pint with The Notorious B.I.G. and The Rat Pack? If you’re swinging through New England, make it a point to hit Lil’ Rhodey and the state’s best brew pub. And the best part, when you’re done at Trinity you can grab a growler or three for the road. And yes, they do fit into a dorm room micro-fridge.

check them out at:

6. Big City / Sunset Grill, Allston, Massachusetts
Samuel Adams, Boston Beer Works and Harpoon have long dominated Boston’s beer scene. And rightfully so, because each is distinctly New England, diverse, flavorful and offer some of the best beers on the planet, let alone the Northeast. But the place that brings them all together, along with an enormous international lineup of their hoppy cousins, is Big City / Sunset Grill in Allston. Two establishments under the same owner, literally one on top of the other, this college neighborhood hangout is on the bottom floor a Mexican cantina (Sunset) and above a jiving pool hall (Big City). But what they share is a phenomenal beer menu, complete with your standard ambers and ales all the way to doppel bock and rauch bier. The ability to mix and match in a flight allows you to taste samples from around the world. Try their seasonal mash ups, or takes on the typical black & tan, like the Guinness and Harpoon Winter Warmer, which might remind you of french toast in a glass. And don’t count out the food at both places. The BBQ chicken nachos at Big City do to cheese and tortilla chips what Bostonians do to the English language – make it wicked awesome. 

check them out at:

5. Firehouse Brewing Company, Rapid City, South Dakota

Despite the history running through the walls of this place – it is South Dakota’s first brewpub and is located in Rapid City’s original firehouse – you can consider Firehouse Brewing Company the offspring of the Colorado microbreweries that dominate the Rocky Mountain region. Which is absolutely not a bad thing. The relaxed atmosphere, local entertainment and genuine people honing their craft are just like most small brewpubs, but Firehouse adds nostalgia and a surprising sense of escape. Sitting out on the patio, watching some live music and sipping a glass of Smoke Jumper Stout or Brown Cow Ale is the best way to take a timeout from whatever cross-country, Wally World family road trip hell you’re enduring. The boys on Mt. Rushmore can wait; they’re not going anywhere. Waiter, another round. Check them out at:

4. Bier Baron, Washington, D.C.

Of the 500 bottles and 50 drafts that this D.C. pub offers, my cousin decided to order something called the Polish Super Beer. Let’s just say that later that night, he was in no position to leap tall buildings in a single bound. There are countless great bars and happy hour specials in our nation’s capital. But the founding fathers would have appreciated Bier Baron’s gritty denial of no-option tyranny. The beer menu should be located in the National Archives and the no-nonsense atmosphere and service lets you know this place takes its beer seriously. I first visited Bier Baron back when it was called The Brickskeller. If anything, the new owners have ramped up the vibe but kept the comfortable brick wall, basement bar feel that makes this establishment worth walking the National Mall for. 

check them out at:

3. The Black Friar Pub, London, UK

London sometimes gets a bad culinary rap. But when it comes to cask-pumped ales, you’ll not hear a complaint from me. Which makes sense at the Black Friar Pub, since the Dominican Friars for whom it is named were probably enjoying their brew in silence back in the day.

Since I’m a Providence College grad I have a certain fondness for anything Friar-related. But this corner pub in London’s Blackfriar district would make anyone a fan, regardless of collegiate affiliation. From the giant, fat black friar statue above the door, to the beautiful, ornate thirteenth century carvings and signs to the marble, wrought iron and mosaic tiles, the pub itself is worth a visit. The food is filling and tasty and the beer, most important of all, is well kept, diverse and served quickly.

On a crowded afternoon we were lucky enough to snag a small table in a small back room with a gorgeous vaulted, decorated ceiling. A few hours later we realized we had drank away the afternoon and by God, we didn’t feel a bit guilty. Seems to be a common theme with every kind of Friar, and that’s why I’m glad to be one. 

2. Chinese Tower Beer Garden, Munich, Germany

When you’re talking about beer and places to drink it, anywhere in Germany basically beats anywhere else. Anywhere. They serve beer in halls, gardens, at giant tables, with huge mugs. But if the beer weren’t good, none of it would matter. Fortunately for the Germans, they established themselves as a world power in beer quite some time ago. Fortunately for the rest of the world, they’re willing to share.

Down in Bavaria, the city of Munich plays host to the world’s foremost beer party – Oktoberfest. But it isn’t Oktoberfest that has me gushing over the German’s fancy for fermenting. You won’t leave Munich without appreciating the beer culture. And you can’t appreciate the beer culture unless you experience it. Besides late nights at long tables at beer halls, my choice goes to the outdoor beer gardens, one of the most unique and fun environments at which to grab a stein. Germany and the rest of the world have plenty. But a beer garden in an English Garden, under a Chinese Pagoda that houses an oompa brass band? That’s just too crazy not to work.

Munich’s English Garden – their version of Central Park – revolves around the Chinese Tower, a tiered pagoda with a thriving beer garden at its foundation. Sitting down with a stein on a beautiful day, I people-watched everyone from mothers pushing baby carriages to euro hipsters to tourists to a few of those crazy guys who were just surfing in the river (yes, that’s right). I grabbed a giant soft pretzel, some bratwurst and a radler to quench my thirst. The beer-lemonade mix worked better than Gatorade. After moving on the regular light beer, I was almost ready to stand up and chant “Prost!” with the brass band playing high above on one of the pagoda’s tiers.

Just don’t forget to return your mug with the little green chip they give you at checkout. You’ll get a refund. They have to make sure you don’t run off with their mugs, of course. Those Germans have a lot of beer and there are a lot of people that want it. 

1. Captain Tony's, Key West, Florida

Ernest Hemingway sat on these stools. Jimmy Buffet too. And so did some guy named Earl from Poughkeepsie in his Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. But that’s the beauty of the world’s greatest dive bar, located at the Southernmost point of the United States.

Captain Tony’s is a legend, and not just because of it’s inclusion in the Buffet song “Last Mago in Paris” or because of its eponymous, grizzled owner. It’s not a legend because of some huge unique beer selection. No, it’s a legend because it’s accessible. Fisherman and tourist sit side by side while a local band rattles away. Grab a stool. Grab a beer. Grab a conversation with anyone. Next thing you know, the dusk is settling in and you’re a few steps away from Key West’s best show – the sunset.

I had the pleasure of meeting Captain Tony himself before he passed away. The Captain was a staple at the bar, his weathered face a welcome reminder that a hard life is filled with equal parts hard work and hard partying.

He was leaning against the side merchandise bar soliciting kisses from a couple buxom coeds. Next to him on the bar was a jar that he made people put a dollar into if they wanted a photo with him. When it was my turn, he told my wife (girlfriend at the time) and I that the money was for a hooker when he went to Vegas. That seemed about right, since he solicited a kiss from my girlfriend and made several comments about her chest size while staring in that general direction. Then he laughed it off, shook my hand, told me to enjoy myself at his bar and gave me a t-shirt three sizes too big with his face on it. In that moment, that dirty old man became my hero.

He may be gone but Captain Tony’s Key West vibe remains at his bar and all along Duval Street. So like Jimmy Buffet recommends, go down to Captain Tony’s to get out of the heat. 

Reader choices:

Theresa Jontz check her out on Twitter @redfragglemusic : 

"Mission Delores, Brooklyn, NY (my local bar, half outdoors, half indoors, rotating beer list, great bartenders, pinball, in an old auto body shop)

Hot Bird, Brooklyn, NY (big outdoor beer garden courtyard, next to a BBQ place, all on an old 40s/50s gas station/service station) 

BAR New Haven, CT (because there's New Haven pizza involved and they brew their own beer)

Barcade, Brooklyn, NY (craft beer and old school video games)

Johnny Brenda's, Philadelphia, PA (because there's great food, local beer AND music)

The Brewer's Art, Baltimore, MD. (cool location, great beer and cool glasses)

Emily Place: 

"Cascade Barrel House, Portland OR (House of sour)- that's my fave. Rob has a long list... in SF starting with Toronado and in Oakland, Beer Revolution."

Tony Izzo: 

"Stone's Public House, Ashland, MA and Manayunk Brewery, Philadelphia, PA

Mike Raia check him out on Twitter @mikeraia : 

"Boston Beer Works. Trinity Brew House. Any Dogfish Head bar. Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick. And the place on route one in hyattsville that I can't think of."

Brendon Sullivan: 

"I have to recommend two bars from my adopted hometown of Amesbury [Massachusetts]: The Ale House and The Barking Dog."

John Judge: 

"Mr. Pickwick's Pub, Luzern, Switzerland"

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Danke, Papa - rewrite

(I took a short piece from a couple years ago and updated / rewrote it in anticipation of Father's Day)

James “Gigi” DeSimone earned his travel chops the hard way: dodging shrapnel and Nazis. He participated in the European theater during World War II and as a field medic on D-Day, saw nightmares of the unforgettable kind.

But my grandfather saw some other things in Europe that he could not forget; but those, he wanted to remember. He found them by exploring, when he was able. He sought out good experiences, thinking that all he knew of European life, days filled with explosions and gore, nights dripping with anxiety, couldn’t be the finality of existence across the Atlantic. 

Whether to protect us kids or to keep the unforgettable somewhat forgotten, he doesn’t talk about wartime much. What he does recount are his adventures that took him around France and Belgium, riding on trucks and meeting girls. He even had a girlfriend in Paris, which he likes to point out in front of my grandmother for a good laugh and eye roll. Michelle Dupont may still be waiting for him on, “one of those bridges over that river.”

When he returned from Europe, met my grandmother Alice and started a family, they shared a common love for travel. In their day, Nana and Papa were the avidest of avid world travelers. Mexico, Ireland, Italy, the world was their oyster - scratch that, my maternal grandmother is extremely allergic to shellfish - the world was their, let’s say, filet mignon.

Years slipped by and travel went away with the hearing, eyesight and easy mobility. They even squashed their annual snowbird migration to their beloved home in Florida (the Tin Can, as my cousins as I call it).

But nothing can hide the gleam that undoubtedly sparks in their eyes when they start reminiscing about their travels together. Nana has a hard time seeing, but I know she sees those mental pictures in high definition without any need for glasses.

The night before my wife and I left for our three-week European honeymoon, we visited my grandparents hoping to get a few travel tips and maybe a story or two.

They didn’t disappoint. Nana corrected Papa during a story about a salesman on a beach in Mexico who told my grandmother she was too grande to wear the shawls he sold out of his kiosk.

And then my grandfather got up and told us to wait a minute. He went to his room and came back holding a small 4 inch by 4 inch brown booklet and handed it to me.

On the tattered front cover were the words, German Language Guide.

I held it like it was made of crystal, afraid if I opened the cover the whole booklet would disintegrate in my palm. But Papa said to open it, so I did.

The inside cover reads:

War Department
Washington 25, D.C. 22 June 1943.
TM 30-306, German Language Guide, to be used with the Introductory Series Language Records, is published for military personnel only, and is not to be republished in whole or part without the consent of the War Department. By order of the Secretary of War:
G.C. Marshall, 
Chief of Staff.

He saved it for 67 years. This booklet had been with him throughout Europe and clearly had some wear and tear. I couldn’t help wondering how he used it, since my grandfather never actually proceeded into Germany with the Army. I ignored the thought and instead rapidly began flipping through it like a kid with a comic book.

On the next page was an Archie comics-esque cartoon depicting four G.I.s sitting around a record player, presumably practicing their German. Each one had a confounded look and the small Dachshund dog with them appeared to be howling at their ineptitude (the weiner dog was all over the booklet, I’m guessing he was the least offensive representative of German culture they could come up with in 1943). Humor was undoubtedly the theme. The comics run throughout, each one is of U.S. soldiers mocking each other for their poor bilingualism. There’s even a general in a bathtub that looks suspiciously like Wilford Brimley.

The possibly offensive cartoons led to outdated maps and a few dozen pages of common German words and phrases. All in all, it appeared to be quite a helpful piece of literature. Something I would actually find useful in Germany.

“That’s for you,” my grandfather said. “Take it with you.”

I was touched but my stupid practicality blurted out, “But we aren’t going to Germany. We’re doing France, Switzerland and Italy.”

He smiled and I couldn’t help but think he had something wise to impart upon me but withheld it, possibly knowing the merits of making the discovery on my own.

Instead he said, “Well I wish I kept the French one too.”

At a train station in Bern, Switzerland two weeks later, I emerged on the platform to signs written solely in German. My wife and I anticipated French and Italian along our journey, not factoring in the third language of the Swiss – but Papa had. Too bad I left the German booklet home. That was the last time I didn’t listen to my grandfather. That was the last time I didn’t take a little bit of him wherever I went.

Papa was the original adventurer in the family. He seized opportunity. He saw whatever he could, experienced whatever he could experience. And despite the horrors of war or the difficult times, the only memories he shares are unabashedly joyous and distinctly humorous. And of all the things he has given me, I cherish this outlook the most (his German booklet is a close second).

At the Smithsonian Air & Space museum in Washington, D.C. there is a World War II exhibit. There, somewhat out of the way of 1940s aircraft, is a display case with era memorabilia. The last time I was there, I noticed a small green booklet that looked vaguely familiar. It was the Japanese Language Guide. Next to it in blue was the French Language Guide. But nowhere in the case was the brown German booklet that I had tucked away safely at home.

I’m sure there are many out there somewhere and maybe someday I’ll offer to give mine to the museum. But for now, it’s not going anywhere except with me the next time I visit Europe. Just in case.

I’ve learned a very important word from it.

Danke. As in, danke Papa.