I featured Piper’s Pub in my Neighborhood Quick Picks: South Side about a month ago, but I hadn’t been there in over a year. I didn’t even manage to make it down for a World Cup game, a serious shame when you consider the prime audience for the restaurant are football enthusiasts. (I mostly watched World Cup games secretly on my work computer, muted and concealed by open work-related desktop windows – a far inferior way to celebrate the world’s best teams going up against each other, but at least it minimized the amount of vuvuzela damage done to my hearing.)
Last Tuesday evening, the reasons to make a visit were stacking up: Wes had never been there. I hadn’t been there in some time. We were meeting up with friends who are picky eaters, therefore a place with an accessible menu was a necessity. And, above and beyond any other reason, we had not one but two coupons, promising two free dinners for two dinners bought. So we made our way into the South Side on cold, rainy night – in hindsight, ideal weather to match our British Isles dining experience.
There’s something reassuring about a place that has not just Guinness on tap, but also a good hard cider. I have many wonderful friends who enjoy Woodchuck Cider but I’m not much for the stuff. Once you’ve had a hard cider like Strongbow, it’s difficult to switch. I understand that this makes be both a snob (except if I were living in the UK, where Strongbow is the hard cider equivalent of Budweiser) and a traitor to my country, but I have not tasted a US hard cider brand that I enjoy as much. (As always, if anyone has a good suggestion, let me know – testing hard cider would be such a strain, but… sigh… it must. be. done.)
Anyway, Strongbow’s presence in the draft line-up usually lets me know two things about a bar/restaurant: 1) The draft list is going to be a comfortable quality and variety (not fancy impressive, not depressingly limited), and 2) there is some attention being paid to the food and drink in this establishment. If they’re going to have a decent hard cider on tap, chances are their going to make the same choices with their menu options.
Piper’s Pub is surprisingly small, equal parts bar and restaurant. It gets packed pretty quickly. When we first sat down in the dining area at the back, there were only a few other diners, but by the end of our meal, there were few spare tables left. The right side of the dining area is lined with wooden booths, fairly roomy for being packed in. The left is tables, with enough clearance space left for the wait staff to zip in and out. It’s very casual, very easygoing.
Seated in our booth, Wes and I perused the menu. It’s an extensive collection of familiar British Isles cuisine coupled with typical American bar grub and a few surprises thrown in. Conscious of our budgets and despite the luring presence of Scotch Eggs, we opted out of an appetizer and went straight to picking our entrees.
On the American side of the table, Kelly ordered a cheeseburger and fries, which looked fairly unremarkable as far as burgers go. I, for one, think that is okay – too much emphasis is placed on giant buns or a huge amount of toppings or an enormous patty of beef. If you think about the best cookout hamburgers, they’re not extremely large or cumbersome, and they’re usually not loaded down with additions. What matters is the flavor inside, of which Kelly seemed to approve. It was deemed good, if nothing special.
Streamlined and simple did not seem to be the guiding principle with Jamie’s choice, his Reuben exploding with corned beef and sauerkraut. There seems to be an overriding idea with deli-favorite sandwiches that more is better, and I don’t happen to disagree. The insides of the Reuben overwhelmed the marble rye, to the point where it was not visible when the sandwich was first put down on the table. It proved to be too much for our dining companion, who made it most of the way through the sandwich but encouraged us to eat his fries, which were also fairly middle-of-the-road, but came with a herbed mayo that I thought was pretty delicious. Wes found it disgusting.
Moving on to the other side of the Atlantic, Wes and I decided that if our dining companions were going to stay safe with their options (always the best idea if you’re a picky eater) we should probably do our best to feature the menu’s extensive British Isle offerings. While we didn’t go as far as we maybe should have (Toad in the Hole, how do I manage to ignore you?), we did try to branch out.
Wes ordered the Beef Shepherd’s Pie, but it wasn’t exactly what he expected. Shepherd’s Pies come in nearly as many varieties as there are places serving them, sometimes in pot pie form, sometimes more of a casserole. What he got instead was a beef and vegetable stew served in a wave of brown gravy crashed onto a shore of semi-mashed potatoes. Personally, I thought it tasted pretty good. The meat was mild and tender along with the vegetables and potatoes, and although there was a bit too much gravy, it bound the ingredients in substantial flavor. Wes, on the other hand, has an aversion to food that looks a little… iffy. This dish looked a little like it had been run through a food processor for thirty seconds, then slopped into a shallow bowl and accompanied with a roll. He made it most of the way through, but it was slow progress.
When I was in London and visiting Greenwich, I stumbled upon one of the most delicious surprises of my life. Taking a chance on a chicken and mushroom pie and washing it down with a can of cold hard cider, I had a transcendent culinary experience right there in the cafe. So, whenever I have another chance at a savory pie, I almost always jump at it. The Piper’s pie isn’t what I expected, but that’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable in its own right. Tender bite-size chicken and vegetables in a pool of light brown gravy, seasoned boldly, and topped by an oversize pastry…. well, a sort of inflated pastry loaf. The loaf flaked away with every forkful from the plate, which helped make the overall dish less creamy and more substantial. Though the Shepherd’s Pie wasn’t exactly inferior in taste, Wes preferred mine, which goes to show you how much a little effort in presentation helps.
Despite a few mediocre meal notes (and admittedly, one fairly poor one), I would highly recommend giving Piper’s Pub a try, especially for groups of mixed eaters. The extensive, varied menu offers something for nearly everyone, even veggies and vegans, but you have to be selective. We also, unfortunately, did happen to be there on a football (soccer) night, when the pub packs in a rowdy, vocal, hard-drinking crowd of fans. Three heavy beers through dinner, we all could have used some sports enthusiasm, or maybe a raucous song or two from the Pogues.