Penny Farthing Tavern
Salinas’ Penny Farthing Tavern returns with a cleaner look and improved food.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
“Good beer and fancy food should be kept separate… like church and state,” rogue food writer/chef Anthony Bourdain once declared. “That wall crumbles and all will be chaos.”
The return of Salinas’ most revered pub, Penny Farthing Tavern, honors Bourdain’s thesis, but not without pushing its food in the gastropub direction. Its new owners – the Dunwoody Restaurant Group, which owns similar operations throughout the Atlanta area – is adamant about abiding to a blueprint of good beer and quality food orchestrated by chef Orlando Corona. They serve seven salad choices, including the Hong Kong steak ($9.95) – thinly sliced marinated steak with mandarin oranges, carrots, bleu cheese crumbles and a house-made oriental cucumber dressing – but they remember it’s a neighborhood pub, not a Michelin-ranked eatery.
That’s due in large part to the fact that one of the Penny’s new owners is actually not so new: Huw Thomas managed the spot in the ’80s before moving to Atlanta and operating pubs throughout Georgia. When the Penny Farthing was on the market, Thomas jumped at the opportunity to reunite with his suffering baby. “It’s not a club,” he says. “It’s a pub. People love it so much that all you have to do is keep it on the rails and it’ll do well.”
General manager Richard Wildt – a former Dave and Buster’s corporate chef who’s glad to be back in Salinas, where his mother resides – understands that they don’t need to get too complicated: “There is no magic formula; we’re taking [the Penny] back to the way it used to be, with good beer and good service.”
Yes, the beer is good, and it flows like the Salinas River after a heavy rain. There are more than 15 brews on tap, including English Ales Fat Lip and Dragon Slayer IPA (both $5.50 a pint), and there are also more than 20 varieties of bottled beer, including Sam Adams and Becks. And there are weekday deals: Every Monday through Thursday, from 4:30-7pm, everything on tap is $3, as are any well drinks. If hops aren’t your thing, there’s a selection of 12 mostly local wines on hand, including Hahn Merlot and Lockwood Cabernet for $6.
The service is strong. Wildt greets all diners personally, and early hiccups have been largely eliminated. The setting is also polished from its most recent iteration. Sadly, the otherwise-positive upgrade on interior decor swapped the billiards room for a banquet space.
For my first visit, at our waitress’s suggestion, my bushy-haired friend orders the Tuscan sandwich ($9.95). The sliced grilled chicken, oven-dried tomato, basil and mozzarella between grilled ciabatta with basil mayo isn’t bad. But if it’s a straight-up, down-and-dirty, clog-your-artery sandwich that goes well with a pint of Harp that you want, get the big Brooklyn Reuben ($9.95) I saw another diner order. Another belly-busting option is the Norfolk pot pie ($12.95), a stately cousin of the American pot pie that sticks to the ribs with the same firm grip.
A whole section of the menu is dedicated to “tortizzas,” olive-oil-drizzled 10-inch tortilla treats served pizza style – like the Cheffy! ($9.95), with roasted mushrooms, mozzarella, caramelized onions, roasted garlic and goat cheese. I opted for more conventional U.K. fare, bangers and mash ($11.95). The English sausages of pork and veal are plopped on top of a heap of mashed potatoes mixed with caramelized onions, mushrooms and Cabernet sauce. The sausages are serviceable, but the mash is the victor of this quintessential pub plate.
For my next visit, I keep with the pub standards and ask for a hamburger. The Penny does the burger with panache, peddling six creative choices including the original Dunwoody Doozie ($9.95), a half-pound of Sysco-delivered beef topped with bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato and a tower of onion strings. I took on a healthier Artemis’ Turkey Burger ($8.95). Sitting between a soft kaiser roll, its lightly seasoned turkey patty is topped with homemade Greek dressing, chopped lettuce and feta cheese. Delicious.
Another ubiquitous tavern favorite done well here is the fish and chips ($8.95/one piece; $12.95/two pieces). It’s the quality of the fish that makes the fried strips come to life, and the Penny uses Icelandic cod.
The most impressive part of the menu, though, is its overwhelming selection of appetizers, stocked with surprising starters that surpass usual suspects like mozzarella sticks and hot wings. The lamb tikka ($8.95) tops a list that features 13 apps. The platter comes with four skewers of marinated lamb bites, housemade lemon vinaigrette (loaded with chopped Greek olives) and warm pita bread. The citrus zing and olives play perfectly with the tender morsels of meat.
Another inventive option is the Irish spring rolls ($9.95), an inverted Reuben of sorts. The flaky fried pockets of corned beef, Swiss cheese and cabbage served with thousand island dipping sauce are devilishly filling. Ask to have them cooked extra crispy.
Some hearty weekly specials like all-you-can-eat king crab legs ($19.95) on Tuesdays and prime rib dinner (queen-sized $14; king-sized $17) on Fridays and Saturdays buttress the daily options. The Penny also offers entertainment five nights a week: karaoke Wednesdays (9pm-1am), trivia Tuesdays (7-9pm), live blues Thursdays (9pm-1am) and, in the near future, wine and beer pairing dinners. In about three weeks, Wildt says, the tavern will be open on Sundays, in plenty of time for football season.
“We want to be a neighborhood tavern with good food and good beer,” he says. So far, so good.