Armsby Abbey is buzzing for a Friday afternoon, even without the impending arrival of the after-work crowd. It seems people can’t get enough of this Worcester hot spot, which is also one of the world’s top-rated gastropubs.
“Gastropubs,” a trendy term for establishments serving high-end beer and food, have transformed the culinary land-scape over the last several years. While gastropubs exploded in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, they didn’t pop up in the U.S. until 2004 (The Spotted Pig in Manhattan’s West Village is widely considered the original). A decade after their American introduction, gastropubs are becoming the norm rather than the exception. The idea of gourmet food made with organic ingredients, coupled with the second wave of the craft beer movement, is a recipe that’s gaining popularity across the region.
Lopez, whose mission is to provide customers with the best beer and food options in the city, embraces the ideas of handcrafted and artisan in his business.
“Everything in here is local,” he said, adding that even the bar’s wood and metal work was made locally. “We don’t bring anything in from the outside world. We make everything. The bread, olives, pickles; we butcher and cure our own meat; we make preserves all in this spot,” he said. What Armsby doesn’t make in house, it gets from local farms. Lopez uses about 50 New England farms ~ the produce is from Massachusetts, as well as the fish, which also comes from Rhode Island. “We feel very good and very proud about that,” he said.
Lopez takes the same artisan approach to his beer selection ~ it’s all craft (read: no macrobrews sold). “My goal is to give people access to the best beer in the world,” he said. He added that Armsby’s craft cocktail program is on par with that of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City and is often infused with in-season ingredients (that night, the menu featured fresh strawberries from Tougas Farms in Northborough).
Because of this, Armsby’s menu changes on a whim ~ smoked bone marrow and mac n’cheese are the only guaran-teed items ~ as does the beer list. “We rotate through about 50 to 60 different beers a week,” Lopez said.
Other area establishments also have stepped up their games in order to separate themselves from the competition.
“There are so many options for people in Worcester, and in the surrounding area, that you need a point of differentia-tion,” said Thomas Oliveri, owner and operator of Peppercorn’s Tavern & Grille and one of the owners of Wormtown Brewery, which is headquartered at the restaurant.
Once a heavily influenced Italian restaurant, Peppercorn’s has evolved over the last several years to stay with the times. “A person doesn’t just want Chicken Parmesan anymore,” said Oliveri, adding that Peppercorn’s now offers a variety that includes items like tacos and sashimi. “It’s clean, easy eating that’s good.”
Peppercorn’s redesigned its menu in order to reach a different demographic. “We had a primarily older clientele,” said Oliveri, adding that the addition of Wormtown Brewery and an extensive craft beer selection helped expand the res-taurant’s reach. “It’s about giving something better to the customers. Dining these days is an experience.”
Rye & Thyme, which opened two years ago in Leominster, defines itself by its love for all things American. “Every-thing we carry is 100 percent American [save a few international spirits],” said Joshua Longtin, director of operations for Niche Hospitality. “There is a ton of great craft beer, both domestic and overseas, but we wanted to focus on the American side. There are tons of options out there ~ and they keep popping up, so we’re never limited.”
Although Rye & Thyme serves the “usual suspect” macrobrews, it also has 15 rotating craft drafts and a “cellar se-crets” section of small-batch beers. All of these can be enjoyed throughout the restaurant, but real beer aficionados are found in the Draught Cellar. “We have a great wine and craft cocktail program, but it’s all about the beer down here,” Longtin said.
And when it comes to food, it’s all about New England. “Our food is prepared as traditional New England fare,” said Longtin. “We cook everything over our wood-fire grill, so it smells like campfire and bacon all of the time.” He added that the raw bar, which features $1 oysters daily, and other seafood comes mainly from the northern East Coast, while all the beef comes from a co-op of several family farms in Maine.
“We offer a great dining experience based on quality ingredients and preparation,” he said. “There are a dozen places in the area where you can get craft beer, but people crave selection and education, and we use that as a tool to showcase what we have.”
Just north in Westminster, Blueprint is also putting its stamp on local food and drink. “It’s burgers and pizzas, but it’s burgers and pizzas with a different twist,” said Bar Manager Amy Courtemanche. For example, the Georgia Dog ~ a hot dog wrapped in bacon and fried, served in a pretzel roll and topped with barbecue sauce, peperoncini, mozzarella and cheddar. “We know people like hot dogs, but they don’t expect them to be gourmet and fancy,” she said.
Pair any of the fresh menu items ~ the beef is local, and seafood is delivered daily ~ with one of the craft beers. Blue-print is one of the only, if not the only, place with eight Wachusett beers on tap.
Closest is Brew City’s five Wachusett drafts, part of the restaurant’s collection of 40 taps, the majority being craft beer. Brew City has been at its Shrewsbury Street location in Worcester for 18 years and was one of the first in the area to serve craft beer. “We started with 32 draft lines, which were filled with a whole different batch of craft beers that don’t even exist anymore,” said General Manager Jennifer Wright.
What has remained constant is Brew City’s commitment to serving good food. The menu features fan favorites, such as buffalo chicken tenders, onion rings (which Wright claims are best in the city), the Guinness meatloaf and an array of unique burgers. Wright said the restaurant has added more seafood dishes ~ including the “amazing” haddock bruschetta ~ and is getting more creative with specials (such as the hickory-smoked prime rib special on Father’s Day).
“We always sold more booze than food, but now it’s about half and half,” she said. “It’s good to see people appreciating the food more.”
While the trendy term “gastropub” might someday disappear, it seems local restaurants’ commitment to improving their food and drink menus is here to stay.
“There’s so much competition that you have to put out a damn good product,” said Wright.
THE FANTASTIC FIVE
144 Main St., Worcester
Beer selection: 22 draft lines, 100-130 bottles.
Must-try: Armsby Abbey’s handcrafted burger is made of ground beef heart, ground chuck and smoked bone marrow (all ground in-house), served on a roll made fresh daily (at Crust next door) and topped with homemade aioli, pickles, onions and cheddar. If you’re not a burger person, try the BLT; Armsby makes its own bacon and places it on fresh-baked bread and tops it with homemade mayo (made from local eggs), farm-fresh lettuce and tomato. According to owner Alec Lopez, “Our BLT is so unbelievably different because of the true craftsmanship of it.”
BLUEPRINT AMERICAN BAR AND GRILL
10 Village Square, Westminster
Beer selection: 16 draft lines, 50-75 cans and bottles.
Must-try: “We just added brunch, and it’s phenomenal,” said Bar Manager Amy Courtemanche. In addition to good food, there’s a Bloody Mary bar offered on weekends. Order your Bloody Mary original or with the house mix and top it with an array of garnishes, including bacon and beef jerky.
104 Shrewsbury St., Worcester
Beer selection: 40 draft lines, 3 casks, 110-115 cans and bottles.
Must-try: Pair a five-beer sampler with one of the famous burgers like The King (Black Angus burger with bacon, grilled banana and creamy peanut butter on a house roll) or the Ravioli Roma (Black Angus burger topped with a jumbo five-cheese fried ravioli, marinara sauce and Provolone on a house roll).
PEPPERCORN’S GRILLE & TAVERN
455 Park Ave., Worcester
Beer selection: 20 draft lines (including 10 Wormtown), 30-40 bottles.
Must-try: The top-selling Fontina Chicken is worth the trip ~ breaded chicken, prosciutto, garlic lemon cream sauce and oil and garlic linguini. Or stop in for an award-winning Wormtown brew, which features a “piece of Mass in every glass” and is an official stop on the New England Beer Trail.
RYE & THYME AMERICAN TAVERN
14 Monument Square, Leominster
Beer selection: 15 draft lines, 1 cask, 25 bottles, 20 cans.
Must-try: Sit on the 70-seat patio or head down to the Draught Cellar for a “cellar secret” draft (try the daily $1 oys-ters from the raw bar or something different, like the Oyster Po Boy). Every other month, Rye & Thyme hosts a craft brew dinner in the cellar event space. “Guests can enjoy a three-course meal with beer pairings,” Director of Opera-tions Joshua Longtin said.
By Kimberly Dunbar
Photography courtesy of Erb Photo.