What the Heck Is a Gastropub?

Features by Rachel Forrest/Photos: Tony Scarpetta / March, 2019

American offshoots of a British creation are firmly entrenched in the Seacoast.

Once upon a time, pubs were meant for one thing: drinking ale and whiskey. The term is a shortening of “public house” and has a distinctly British association. As for food options, there might be a dish of cold meats to absorb the alcohol. Gradually, menus began to expand to include savory pies, bangers and mash, and of course fish and chips, great dishes to help you keep drinking.

Then, in 1991, things changed. A London pub, The Eagle, is credited as being the first gastropub. According to the Independent, it was “the site of a dining revolution that spawned thousands of imitators, changing the way the British eat while we drink."

It wasn’t long before this gastropub model crossed the pond to America. One of the first on the Seacoast was Portsmouth’s Coat of Arms Pub. This neighborhood hangout, which closed at the end of May in 2017 after nearly 23 years, offered elevated British Isles–influenced dishes, plenty of Irish and Scotch whiskey, and lots of quality beer on tap. The Press Room in Portsmouth was another early gastropub, with upscale pub fare and locals at the bar.

But in the last few years, a hipper gastropub concept has taken off on the Seacoast, to such a degree that almost every town in the region seems to have its own. The burgers or mac and cheese are vastly different from chain restaurant or diner fare, often using ingredients sourced from nearby farms. The menu will include delightful snacks like 21st-century deviled eggs (tapenade, French onion, sriracha anyone?).

On the drink side, local craft beer is on tap; it might even be made onsite, a brewpub. Cocktails have grown more and more creative and artisanal, and there’s often a small but high-quality wine list.

Expect plenty of wood all over. Rough-hewn oak tables, polished bars, maybe even reclaimed wood as walls. The dining room or bar is on the small side, too, intimate, cozy. Guests include many locals who are regulars.

Now, pushing three decades since the term was coined, some of our Seacoast “gastropublicans” weigh in on this still-growing American trend, what it is, and where it’s going.

Space Age
One of the key characteristics is how guests feel in the space. Mark Ryan, owner of Sonny’s Dover in Dover, New Hampshire, says that creating a vibe was one of the most important considerations. “Design was very important to us,” he says. “The first thing we thought of when we were planning the build out for Sonny’s was making a place where everyone was comfortable, someplace that inspired good conversations and meeting new friends. We wanted a true neighborhood establishment where everyone feels at home.

”On the food side, the menu reflects what the team members like to eat and drink. “We also strived to put all of our favorite food, the dishes that we obsessed over for years as fans of food, on our menu, as well as cocktails that were a little different, inspired, and well executed,” Ryan explains. Dishes include snacks like a rotating selection of deviled eggs, fried green tomatoes, and Honey Mustard Fried Chicken with mashed red potatoes.

Burgers are on just about every gastropub menu, each with its own signature. Great craft beer is also an important part of the mix. Alex and Gretchin Aviles at WHYM Craft Beer Cafe in Portsmouth have created an environment where an eclectic selection of local, national, and international beer draws connoisseurs and also folks just wanting a casual meal in a relaxed environment, but with a bit of creativity.

“When we hear ‘gastropub,’ we think of a dimly lit restaurant with creative, risky foods that aren’t too obscure, forcing people to go outside their comfort level. We also think of gastropubs having small, craft cocktails, a wine cellar with bottles we’ve never heard of, and craft beers to accommodate all types of drinkers,” the Avileses write in an email. “If you are squinting to see the menu due to poor lighting conditions, you’re in a gastropub.”

The couple welcomes the gastropub label for WHYM, but have another term in mind, too. “We do have many attributes of a gastropub, but we don’t label ourselves as one,” they explain.“We’re just a small-town couple that enjoys finding and serving great beers. We feel a bit pretentious calling our place a gastropub. We identify more as New American. We take classic meals and reinvent them with a unique flare. For example, when adding an item to the menu, we have a discussion with our staff to see if anyone else has done it locally. We strive to add items to our menu that are a spin on the classics, but a spin that no one has done yet. If it has been done, we don’t want to do it. You will not find fried Brussels sprouts on our menu.”

You will find some of the staples of a gastropub menu like Classic Belgian Frites made more interesting by dipping sauces like horseradish aioli, a few burgers, and Stumbling Cow, a half pound of “boozed and spiced up” sirloin steak with Cajun slaw and a corn and bean salsa.

Comfort Zone
Like the concept at Sonny’s Tavern, the Avileses say that the comfort of guests is key. “The most important thing is for a place to be inviting,” they say. “Guests shouldn’t feel intimidated or uncomfortable. There shouldn’t be a prerequisite for entering; all should feel welcome. You want your guests to feel like they’re enjoying a luxurious meal without having to press their pants or pull out their heels.

”At Thistle Pig in South Berwick, Maine, Chef Ben Hasty serves locally sourced, easily recognizable food but with distinct differences. There’s a cheese and charcuterie board, one of the common elements on a gastropub menu, as well as a finely crafted burger, here on brioche with sweet onions and spicy pickles. You’ll also find dishes like cheddar grits with a fried egg and BBQ sauce. The key for Hasty, like the Avileses, is comfort.“We are a neighborhood spot,” he says. “Some guests join us daily or weekly, some for celebrations mainly, some in a normal rotation of their favorite spots. At the end of the day, to us it doesn’t really matter what you identify yourself as a restaurant, it’s more who you are to your guests and community.”

When people ask, Hasty says he describes Thistle Pig as “a community restaurant that serves market-driven food with attention to detail.” He says service is important, too. “You have to have a staff that cares, and we are very lucky to have that in both front and back of house, an interesting beverage program, and a good mix of food, some things that are the cornerstone of the menu that don’t change,then a good portion that rotates with the seasons.”

In 2011, The Black Birch Kitchen & Drinks opened in Kittery, one of the first of the new generation of gastropubs. Co-owner Ben Lord says that the term did come up when they were planning the concept. “Gastropubs, by my understanding, are casual eateries—pubs—that emphasize are turn to good simple cooking, a marriage of gastronomy and everyday fare. I know for a fact that Gavin [Beaudry, business partner], Jake [Smith, chef], and I all used the term while we were envisioning what Black Birch would be. That said, we also didn’t want to limit the scope of our audience so we didn’t use the term when describing the restaurant, at least not consistently. We wanted the restaurant to have it sown life and dimension; not fit a mold we preconceived. That would feel limiting.”

Lord says that today, after six years, they describe the restaurant in many ways,which covers the variety of customers they get sitting at the bar near the turntable, in the dining room, or outside on the patio.“That description is always evolving. I think it depends on the mood, both the mood of The Black Birch and the neighborhood. Family friendly. Sexy party. Raucous. Casual. All those words fit, at one time or another,” Lord reflects. “So does gastropub. I mean, a beautifully sourced piece of whitefish, from a boat and fisherman we can name—pretty heady. But really, it’s just good fish and chips. It’s what every good fish and chips should be. Deviled eggs that would shame your grandmother. Yeah.”

The Black Birch draws tourists who’ve heard of their eclectic craft beer and cocktail program and delicious food, but it’s well known as a Kittery hangout, a characteristic that comes up time and time again when talking with these Seacoast publicans. “I think the important part is the neighborhood aspect,” Lord says. “We all want a local place. We want that place to deliver the rest of the goods on that list. It’s amazing how far people will go to feel that local experience. At least an authentic one.”

Changes Afoot
The common gastropub themes are here: hangout, exciting food and beverages, a welcoming vibe. We have many to choose from, and the list is growing. Restaurateur Jay McSharry opened The Railpenny Tavern in Epping, his version of this archetype. But as with all trends that have moved along for a few decades and on the Seacoast especially in the past half decade, is there a change coming?

"Evolution is tough to see until it has happened,” Lord says. “I suppose some branches will diverge and offer other things. I can’t really presume that I know which will be important parts of an evolutionary tree and which will die out quickly. As restaurateurs, we are subject to markets that determine that for us. At best, we just try to distill what we think will work in a time or place. The customers bear that out. We are right, and lucky, or we aren’t and fail. Then we either pick ourselves up and continue, or we go into real estate.”

Hasty feels that there might be a return of finer dining restaurants. “This style of restaurant is opening the door to more people, both young and older, and embraces families with kids. It gives farmers and fishermen more business, gives young kids a chance to work with chefs in a more casual setting to learn the trade,” he says. “At Thistle Pig, we take traditional dishes and give them a second look, through a different scope than perhaps others have thought of with home cooking. And what’s next? I think that in time, as people’s palates grow, they will cook more at home, inspired by meals out, and will be willing to invest more in special event places. There will be a small resurgence of places with haute memories—the Arrows and White Barn Inn types—not too many, but I think within 10 years there will be a little more of a market for that kind of dining again.”Will gastropubs continue to evolve, or will they go the way of the fern bar? Gastrobars perhaps?“

Evolution is inevitable,” Alex Aviles says. “We don’t want to give away all of our secrets. For a glimpse at the future of the gastropub keep an eye on WHYM Craft Beer Cafe.” The Avileses already hint at something new to come. “As always, restaurants need to be innovative, sustainable, and focused on consumer interest,” Gretchin says. “While trends in restaurants change with the times, the formula for running a restaurant has not.”

Seacoast Gastropubs and GastroBrews 

Notable Seacoast Gastropubs 

The Black Birch Kitchen & Drinks, Kittery, Maine, 207-703-2294
One of the earlier newer wave gastropubs, with creative deviled eggs, Duck Rillettes, Brick Chicken, and the like.

BRGR Bar, Portsmouth, N.H., 603-294-0902
A next-generation burger joint, which is really a genre of its own, this spot also qualifies as a gastropub.

Joinery Restaurant, Newmarket, N.H., 603-292-0110
Southern food meets New England fare with a bit more refinement.

Oak House, Newmarket, N.H., 603-292-5893
Your home away from home. Find poutine, brisket, fish & chips.

Revolution Tap Room & Grill, Rochester, N.H., 603-244-3022
Snacky beer-battered pickles, harissa deviled eggs, and yes, a burger, too, along with entrees like battered fish & chips.

Rick’s Food & Spirits, Kingston, N.H., 603-347-5287
There’s sweet and spicy thick sliced bacon & scallops as an appetizer, a huge burger menu, and that rustic wood pubby feel.

Rudders Public House, Kittery, Maine, 207-703-2324
Get the fried chicken tenders. Just do it. Great burgers, too, and always check the specials for interesting dishes.

Sonny’s Dover, Dover, N.H., 603-343-4332
Options might include brisket with sweet potato puree, Kale Caesar salad, Hush Puppies.

Thistle Pig, South Berwick, Maine, 207-704-0624
Meat is supplied by Breezy Hill Farm, and local produce and seafood are used whenever possible.

WHYM Craft Beer Cafe, Portsmouth, N.H., 603-501-0478
Options include the Short Days Salad, Mussels and Frites, and house-made stuffed pretzels.

 If the gastropub is a pub or tavern serving casual yet quality food along with a craft beer list, what’s a brewpub? Easy. It’s a pub or tavern serving casual yet quality food plus beer it brews on-site. Gastro Brews, if you will.

Earth Eagle Brewings, Portsmouth, N.H., 603-502-2244
Creative nosh menu includes a Joey's B.L.T. with spicy chipolte aioli and a black peppered duck pastrami sandwich.

Cisco Brewers Portsmouth, Portsmouth, N.H., 603-430-8600
Try Warm Pretzel Sticks, Applewood Smoked Wings, or Chef Dave Harbilas's award-winning Short Rib Chili.

Hayseed Restaurant, Hampton, N.H., 603-601-8300
Enjoy beer-friendly food and food that includes beer. Great vegetarian fare. Try the award-winning Chupa Chii, Smoked Chicken Wings, Steak Frites.

The Portsmouth Brewery, Portsmouth, N.H., 603-431-1115
Executive Chef Jon Hebert has been cooking elevated pub fare at this original New Hampshire brewpub (established1991) for 11 years, four as head honcho. Order the mussels steamed with Blonde Ale, The Daily Devil (eggs), or Hot Pastrami on Rye.

Throwback Brewery, North Hampton, N.H., 603-379-2137
Some ingredients come right from the farm upon which the brewery resides or from local farms. Chef Carrie Dahlgren has created a great balance of snacks and hearty fare good with beer. Try the Mushroom Poutine, Chorizo Bowl, or Pork Schnitzel With Spaetzle.