I’ll admit to a certain wide-eyed innocence about gastro pubs, blinded by the possibilities a few years back when this style of elevated bar cuisine was all the rage in other places but had yet to hit the Tampa Bay area. I imagined truly innovative cuisine in comfortable settings, paired with an exciting beer selection that even the best local restaurants still (largely) fail to work very hard at. Perhaps I was a bit naïve.
Now, a few years later and many new local gastro pubs under my belt, I realize that my vision was flawed. The basic concept of this style of restaurant/bar isn’t about innovative or exciting cuisine, it’s about elevating bar food, about transforming the litany of chicken wings, cheesesteaks and jalapeno poppers we expect to find into menus that strive to recapture the public house image that gave pubs their name. Neighborhood joints with good, hearty food and a damn fine pint of beer.
Dale 1891 delivers that.
Inside you’ll still find a layout reminiscent of any neighborhood bar, with several big televisions, plenty of aged-looking wood décor and a few of those sports-related video games that are one of the final remnants of the stand-up gaming world. There’s also a wee stage fit for local bands and regular karaoke nights, as well as an outdoor deck jutting onto the sidewalk and parking lot to escape the racket on the stage and light up a smoke.
Dale 1891’s beer offerings are expansive — 20 taps and some bottles — and cover the bases, with plenty of American craft brews from places like Cigar City or Green Flash alongside standards like Bass and Stella. There are a few deep cuts, but the place isn’t trying to be a destination for beer geeks from across the Bay area. Instead, Dale 1891’s beer — much better than what you’d find at a typical neighborhood bar, even these days — casts its net further into its home area. Think of it as creating a bigger neighborhood.
The gastro pub menu accomplishes the same thing, with a mélange of straightforward bar fare, updated classics and a few touches that give the place some culinary cred.
There’s pretzel bites and beer cheese dip, not usually served together but worth some creative combining at the table. The pretzel bites are a deep mahogany brown and speckled with salt, but are too light and fluffy to evoke a serious pretzel’s chew. Still, a dunk in the sharp, grainy mustard on the side makes them well worth an order. The beer cheese dip is a tad too runny to cling well to the crisp homemade potato chips it comes with, until you give it a little time to cool and gel. It tastes more like beer than cheese even then, which makes it a great foil for your pint of whatever.
Deep-fried artichoke hearts are a nice change of pace, tart and tender with a bland garlic aioili on the side for dipping, which means they end up more in the beer cheese instead. There’s also edamame hummus that has more texture than the usual blended chickpeas, although too much sesame oil overwhelms the flavor of the soybeans.
That sesame finds better expression in Dale 1891’s Korean beef tacos, featuring thin slices of medium-rare ribeye, pickled veggie slaw and a spicy relish, along with a stack of fresh Bibb lettuce leaves to wrap it all in. The sesame adds a note of richness that ties the sweet, salty and spicy notes together, resulting in a surprisingly light and vibrant dish.
Almost as good, although on the other end of the light-heavy spectrum, is Dale’s version of chicken pot pie. Here, the chicken is smoked, infusing the thick and creamy gravy with a touch of barbecue, with edamame instead of more typical peas and a topping made from truly astounding cheddar jalapeno biscuits that would be worth serving all by their lonesome as an appetizer.
Dale 1891’s other entrees include good burgers seasoned and cooked right, on hefty sourdough rolls; skirt steak with oily, tangy chimichurri; and fish that features more of those sesame-laced Asian vegetables.
And since it’s a gastro pub with a decent chef in the kitchen — Jason Dame, who has cooked at Datz and Mad Dogs & Englishmen — salads are worth a closer look than at most bars, especially the Aviator. Here, Dame coats long romaine hearts with asiago-chili dust, sharp shredded asiago and a serious Caesar dressing, with a few crunchy croutons made from his pretzel bites. It’s a serious salad.
Even with that, however, none of the cuisine will blow you away, probably because it isn’t designed to. Instead, Dale 1891’s food is appealing, occasionally interesting, often sharply executed and pairs well with a variety of brews.
You know, gastro pub fare.
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