Atlantic Avenue pub has more than great beers

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Getting a kid ready for sleep-away camp is a long and exhausting trial. Before they leave, there are reams of paperwork to fill out, doctor visits to attend to and enormous duffel bags to fill with important items like expensive shampoos and glittery lip gloss.

With suitcases packed and the right purchases made, we kissed our daughter goodbye last weekend feeling sad (a month is a long time) and, after all the shopping, a little relieved to see her go.

We both wanted a night out to unwind and quietly celebrate four child-free weeks. We needed a place that didn’t demand that we change out of T-shirts and shorts. The food had to be good yet familiar - we wanted to be comforted not challenged - and it had to have a decent selection of beer for my husband. I needed a good, stiff drink.

The Waterfront Ale House, "Home of warm beer, lousy food, ugly owner," seemed like a good fit. It’s been on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights since 1989. The restaurant-pub owes its longevity, in part, to acknowledging and embracing its pub status. It looks like a pub you’d find anywhere. It smells like beer and hamburgers. It’s the kind of place you go to drink with friends. If you get a decent meal while you’re at it, then all the better.

We sat at a small table near the bar, starving and too tired to talk. The varieties of beer are written on chalkboards - 16 on tap and 50 to 60 different bottles. My husband spotted a beer that he drinks when we’re in Maine - Dog Fish Head, which is heavy and creamy. I ordered a whisky and soda.

Sam Barbieri, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Karen, takes beer seriously. They were the first pub in the area to offer artisanal beers, including bottles from the Brooklyn Brewery. They wanted "a neighborhood place to have great hamburgers and beer." With the help of chef Jim Takacs, a Carroll Gardens resident who has been with the pub for five years, they offer a great deal more than that.

While their menu lists the usual bar finds - chicken fingers, fish and chips, fried calamari, spicy chicken wings and barbecued spare ribs - they also bring earthier, more sophisticated fare to their diners. Venison and black bean chili with tequila-cilantro sour cream is a staple, and a burger made from Kobe beef is a special in the evenings. Barbieri is a barbecue maven, competing in contests around the country where he’s won prices for his smoked brisket and smoked and roasted pig.

We ordered a special of southern-style hush puppies (fried cornmeal dumplings) made with spicy, Cajun-cured smoked ham (tasso) and crawfish, that were salty but much lighter than the oily dumplings I’ve tried down South. Ale-battered jumbo shrimp didn’t fare as well. The shrimp were tender, but the batter was heavy and greasy. The shrimp were dipped in Creole mayonnaise that didn’t taste like much.

The bar is known for serving very good hamburgers. While the large, loosely bound bundle of grilled ground sirloin wasn’t the greatest burger I’ve eaten, it wasn’t a disappointment. The meat had that charcoal-grilled taste that’s so satisfying. The fries served with the burger, and the sweet potato fries that came with a fabulous barbecued chicken, don’t deserve their glorified reputation. They’re fresh and hand-cut, but limp. The coleslaw served with the burger is praiseworthy - crisp and tartly flavored with mustard.

Southern barbecue purists who worship dry rubs over sauces might question the Waterfront’s version of a pulled pork sandwich. Heaped on a spongy roll, it has plenty of tangy, vinegar-laced sauce coating the dry-rubbed, smoked meat. All the meats are smoked in-house, so the pork is infused with a deep, smoky taste. The tart sauce amplifies its sweetness. We picked at the shreds of meat that fell from the sandwich, reluctant to let the waitress take the plate.

Half a chicken is given a spicy, chili-based, dry rub and smoked over hickory and cherry wood. The bird arrives in a cloud of woody aromas. Its crisp and almost blackened skin covers juicy meat. An unpleasant, sweet barbecue sauce, served with the chicken, added nothing to the dish.

We were full and feeling happier after the entrees. Dessert seemed like too much of a good thing, but Steve’s key lime pie was on the menu, and when we see it we always share a slice. Steve’s pies, which are baked in Red Hook, are consistently good - not too sweet, with a crisp crust. As we took forkfuls of the tart pie, we looked around the room at the tables of friends lingering over their beer.

"Would it have mattered if the food hadn’t been good?" I asked.

"Not really," he answered. "But it was."


Waterfront Ale House (155 Atlantic Ave. between Henry and Clinton streets in Brooklyn Heights) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entrees: $10.95-$20.95. For more information, call (718) 522-3794 or visit the Web site Live blues and jazz offered Saturdays at 11 pm in August. See Brooklyn Nightlife for listings.

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