You get spoiled living in the city. Everywhere you turn there is another decent-to-great restaurant to try, each its own singular culinary voice in a crowded eater’s paradise. Consider each city neighborhood and their busiest streets. How many good restaurants, for example, are on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill? And not all of Murray Avenue, just the stretch between Forbes Avenue and where Murray hits Forward Avenue.
I suppose it depends on personal preference, but in my mind, the answer is somewhere around ten. Ten. In the span of a few blocks. And yes, that’s a Pittsburgh perspective. Someone coming out of a city like New York would laugh at that number.
“Ten decent restaurants in a few blocks?” they’d repeat. “My block alone has nearly a dozen places to eat, and that’s not counting the street vendors! That seems downright… suburban!” They would go on, but I have either tuned them out or punched them in the face, cause while they may be right that urban Pittsburgh doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) pack in the businesses like urban New York, they seem to have forgotten what being out in the suburbs is like, especially for diners.
That’s not to disparage suburban eating. Dormont is quasi-suburban, and I go on and on about how terrific it is for diners. I’m not thinking suburban neighborhoods so much as those areas that are, for lack of a better term, vacant of “charm” and abundant with “commercial.” I’m thinking of places like Robinson.
Robinson, with its myriad of big chain stores, its endless strip-mall-esque sections of businesses, it’s gigantic and labyrinth-like parking lots. When I think of Robinson the visual that pops out most readily in my mind is IKEA, emerging from the highway like a monolith tribute to shopping. Its vibrant blue and yellow call the eye’s attention like a shopping siren bringing cars into its parking harbor.
It may say something about my own particular Robinson experiences that the only place I recall eating in the area is the cafeteria at IKEA. (Oh, I could totally go for some Lingonberry soda right about now. I’ll pass on the Swedish meatballs, however.) Most of the nearby restaurants don’t really offer much competition. For most people in and out of Robinson, food is a secondary notion, to be eaten immediately before or immediately following the grander purpose of shopping. Why do malls have food courts and only a few full-restaurant options? Because most shoppers are in a retail-heavy area to shop.
Fortunately, someone was bound to challenge the status quo of the eateries in Robinson. Before the newly formed Settlers Ridge started bringing in restaurants that would be unique to the immediate area, Bocktown Beer and Grill was the first strike against the mediocre and mundane that comprised most of the Robinson dining options.
Bocktown’s Robinson location is in a strip mall segment across a vast lot from the Target. Its long, narrow interior is brightly lit and lined on one side by a bar area and the other side by booth and table seating, eventually leading back to an outside beer garden area. The inside is a surprise – warmly painted and lit, tasteful decor, and comfortable seating – compared to its mostly staid exterior, although the hand-drawn chalkboards advertising specials, events, and the various online locations for Bocktown was a nice touch, livening up a dimly lit concrete sidewalk.
The staff is dressed supremely casual, but move with quickness and efficiency. We were assured of a short wait, then quickly sat in a corner near the front, slightly isolated from the rest of the dining area. A few moments to peruse the beer list, then our server, James, introduced himself and took our drink and appetizer order.
Kait and I quickly seized upon the beer list as an opportunity to try something we had not tried before. Adam, being a bit conservative when it comes to beer choices, attempted to guess which draft selection would be most to his liking. While we should have consulted with our server for suggestions, his choice of the Blue Point Winter Ale was pretty fortunate. It had just enough maltiness to give it a full body, without being overly hoppy, something Adam can’t stand in a beer.
Kait opted for a smooth choice too, going for the Sly Fox Irish Red. Both me and Adam were jealous. The beer is a luxurious deep auburn, crisp and refreshing, but more satisfying than a light, bubbly brew. It’s the absolute perfect mid-point of flavor.
I was in the mood for something powerful, so I ordered a 12 oz. glass of the Victory Old Horizontal. I thought the Storm King was boozy: The Old Horizontal has as an ABV of 10.5%, but a flavor that defies its alcohol-content, at least to a point. It’s hoppy and rich, but it’s got a slight bitter finish, which I liked as it balanced out the sweeter flavors initial to the taste. Plus it comes all classy like in a low, stemmed beer glass, though having more than two of these would make basically insure that you wouldn’t look classy no matter what you were holding.
We were all so immersed in our beer selections that what to eat was almost an afterthought… almost. I like the Bocktown menu because of its versatility. Those who favor more traditional bar fare will find a lot to enjoy about what they have to offer, as will those who need something a little different. But it was the appetizer list that first held our attention. We went for the Beer Cheese and Pretzel basket, something that sounded like a good idea…
… and turned out to be the best idea we had all night. The basket was heaped with two kinds of pretzels and two mini loaves of bread, referred to as “pretzel bread” in the menu. Well, it was more like a home baked loaf of white bread, but who cares? With a beer-cheese dipping sauce this good, we could have been served a basket of Saltines and not complained. Maybe it was the beer we were drinking or the fact that we were all starving, but damn if those pretzels and cheese didn’t hit the spot. There were thin, slightly twisty sticks of pretzel sharing equal space with typical little pretzel knots, and the bread resting unevenly on top. We stuck to the little rods at first, scooping up the remnants of dip with the soft bread. The beer-cheese was just perfect, mellow and creamy, not super heavy, but not so thin as to run off our pretzels.
Passing by the sandwiches and burgers, Kait opted for a lighter dish, and went with the Mediterranean Chicken salad: Mixed greens with a lightly grilled chicken breast and feta cheese, served with a lemon-mint dressing. Now, understand that Kait hates mint. Absolutely hates mint. But she really liked this dressing, which had just the tiniest touch of mint to give it a coolness and play off the acidic bite of the lemon juice. It transformed with the salad, accentuating the sharp feta, bringing out the best of the mild grilled chicken. Kait deemed the entire dish very refreshing. For a bar and grill, that’s a pretty unusual and pretty terrific feat.
On the opposite side of the flavor spectrum, I ordered the B.E.L.T.CH: Bacon (thick slices of peppered bacon), egg (a fried egg), lettuce, tomato held steady by two substantial, but not unmanageably thick slices of toast. Look, for my money, the BLT, when done well, is a perfect sandwich. Nothing fussy, nothing extreme, just a nice slice of tomato, crisp, fresh lettuce, and a few good slices of juicy bacon. Add some mayo (MUST have mayo, even if it’s vegan mayo), served on sturdy toasted bread, and you’ve got a complete, satisfying sandwich without the need of extra dressings, toppings, or specialty meat. I thought that the BLT could not get better than it is…. but Bocktown Beer and Grill made a mockery of that notion. The B.E.L.T.CH ups the ante, just a little. They add an egg.
How? How can it be done? How is it not a godforsaken mess? How is it not an absolute aberration of a sandwich? My answer to you is… I don’t know. It just works. The egg is perfectly cooked so that it is both a good consistency for the sandwich but not all Egg-McMuffin-y. It’s not scrambled. It’s not runny. It stays perfectly wedged between the other ingredients, obedient and obliging in every bite. It is the perfect flavorful complement to the slightly spicy bacon and the cool veggies. And somehow the bread kept it all together. I was… enamored, shall I say, of this sandwich. Enamored, smitten, a little beguiled. After having stuffed myself with a heavy 12 ounces of beer and beer-cheese and pretzels, I could not make it all the way through my sandwich. Kait and Adam, who had both fallen under its spell, finished it off for me.
Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Adam ordered a Justa Burger, with cheese. Adam is not hard to please when it comes to food, but he notices a lot when comparing and contrasting different items. He picked up immediately that the burger was not made in-house. I had read this complaint in the Urbanspoon reviews, but had dismissed it as a rash judgement, perhaps someone who still dislikes the fact that the average burger at a restaurant is nearly ten bucks. I dismissed the complaint entirely, until I tasted Adam’s burger.
There’s just… a flavor. You know it when you taste it. The flavor of “this was frozen at some point.” More importantly, the burger was a uniform round shape and the meat inside even and homogenous, the kind of cleanly organized patty that just does not say “homemade.” A good, homemade burger isn’t tightly compacted. It’s got a little looseness to it. You want it to stay on the bun – it’s not a Sloppy Joe – but you also want to see the inner nooks and crannies that make it handmade burger. Adam was, understandably, disappointed. A place like Bocktown should have good burgers, it just makes sense. To fall short of that but to succeed in something decidedly un-barlike like Kait’s salad is an intriguing contradictory characteristic, but not necessarily a positive one.
We enjoyed far more ups than downs with our meal, yet, leaving Bocktown, the three of us were decidedly mixed on our review. We liked it, really liked parts of it (oh, B.E.L.T.CH, I will someday understand your mysterious ways…), but in thinking about driving out there specifically for the restaurant, we realized that there are half a dozen places in the city that we prefer over Bocktown. We enjoyed our experience, and would probably jump at the chance to dine there if in hungry in Robinson again, but it doesn’t necessarily merit a specific trip to Robinson in of itself.
But that’s not really the point, is it? LIke I said, you get spoiled living in the city. Bocktown Beer and Grill isn’t meant for someone who has a ton of options. It’s meant for the good people who live out in Robinson but hate chains. It’s for the people who are dead tired and hungry after a day of hardcore shopping, but don’t want to settle for some gaudy, tacky, over-fried junk stop like TGI Fridays or Applebee’s. It’s a unique, safe haven in a storm of commercialism and concrete. And that is the power of the restaurant. You don’t necessarily carve out an identity on just the food and drink you serve. You build from all parts, from the environment within the restaurant to the environment outside. For some, Bocktown would seem redundant. For others, it would seem like a breath of fresh air.
To us, it was an overall good experience that we will probably repeat next time we need something from IKEA. And we ALWAYS need something from IKEA.