Ode on a Neighborhood Pub
Thou still undiscovered pub of tranquility,
Thou poster-child of Goodwill and chilled Drink,
Sylvan public house, which doth eschew irresponsibility,
Bid us welcome with nary a moment to think:
What beer-tinged legend swirls betwixt thy walls,
That hath gamboled through this icehouse, with fresh air,
In Houston and the copse of Oak Forest?
What men or sods are these? What maidens fair?
What weekday grind? What struggle to divest?
What beers and cocktails? What besotted pub crawls?
With apologies to John Keats, some places simply invite one to wax poetic, to recall myriad formal examples of Plato’s ideal, to open the floodgates of memory like Proust’s madeleine. I’m speaking here of those neighborhood pubs so woven into the fabric of their environs that they nigh attain the original function of the icehouse in the age of refrigeration: as a gathering place where the community living nearby can exchange the latest news, gossip, and anecdotes in a convivial atmosphere over a refreshing beverage. Places that sponsor the local Little League, host neighborhood running clubs, and invite surrounding families to steak nights.
Approaching 3,500 breweries according to the Brewers Association, the U.S. finds itself amidst an undeniable craft beer boom. Where once it was like hunting for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, nowadays it’s pretty easy to find craft beer just about anywhere, to the point that some wonder whether the idea of a “craft beer bar” still obtains. But I think most people know what you’re talking about when you use the phrase: the type of place with eclectic tap handles, chalkboard menus, nitro systems, and mustachioed bartenders evangelizing the good word of some new hop varietal from the Willamette Valley. They’re decidedly different than the average neighborhood pub, most of which retain their casual atmosphere and icehouse trappings without tap lists that would give newcomers to craft beer — or to the neighborhood — pause. The niche craft beer enclaves often have owners or bartenders who become well known among aficionados, garnering a following of their own, with fans who hang on their every word about upcoming events and tappings. Patrons all know these owners’ names, but at the relaxed local joint, it’s still the reverse, it’s about the owners and bartenders knowing their patrons’ names.
One such is the Oak Forest Chill, housed in a former mechanic’s shop and gas station in its titular neighborhood on its eponymous thoroughfare, just north of 34th St. It’s got the requisite garage doors open to the crossbreeze in the evenings, with bartenders quick to flash a smile and regulars quick to engage in conversation. It was the beer that caught my attention on that first visit after I moved into the neighborhood. I remember passing That Pizza Place on Ella – now defunct and long dormant — with their marquee boasting “the largest beer selection in Oak Forest!” A bold claim, what with the Petrol Station right around the corner. While the Oak Forest Chill might not have the largest beer selection in the neighborhood, it might be some of the cheapest. Everything from Ballast Point Sculpin to Founders All Day IPA to local favorites like Karbach Weekend Warrior: all are $4.50, or $4 when a train goes by. But they also keep the icehouse staples on hand; if you’re just looking for domestics like PBR or Lone Star, those are $2.50, or $2 with the same 50 cent train discount — the neighborhood might as well get something for those 3:00 am horn blasts. And yes, if you’re wondering, they get Divine Reserve and Bishop’s Barrel releases from Saint Arnold.
As for events, Wednesday Steak Nights and Friday Taco Nights are run by a caterer who lives in the neighborhood, as are the popular crawfish boils thrown periodically while in season. The running group meets every Tuesday at 6:30, lingering afterwards for a few beers. There are 4 or 5 regular bartenders whose schedule is posted on a dry-erase board behind — but might as well be carved into — the long, curving granite counter top running through the interior. So even if events aren’t your thing and Mondays are your night, you’re sure to see the same friendly faces slinging beers.
Maybe “craft beer bar” refers only to those places that serve craft beer exclusively. But it’s a testament to how far the industry has come when you can kick up your feet and relax at an icehouse while still enjoying a refreshing Real Ale Hans Pils. As craft breweries’ sales creep ever higher and consumers flock to craft havens for their hop fix, I think it’s important to patronize your local pubs as well, especially when they’re stocking a healthy lineup of craft beer. Your patronage shows them that craft is a sound business decision and is here to stay, without alienating those who just want to watch the game with a bud — those who just might be interested in transitioning to a Fireman’s 4. And what will make the Oak Forest Chill even more of a beer destination is the anticipated opening of the Allen’s Landing Brewery in a refurbished warehouse right next door. They received their TABC license earlier this year and are currently undergoing city permitting. Assuming Allen’s Landing is open by fall, I look forward to taking a tour some Saturday, sampling some brews, then heading next door to chill out and watch some football while reminiscing about all the great icehouses I’ve been to and how far we’ve come.