Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

The Great Silicon Valley Pub Quest: Readers speak

By William Brand
Wednesday, March 19th, 2008 at 7:57 am in Uncategorized.

EJ Phair TapsIn my column in today’s San Jose Mercury News, I stick my neck far out and attempt to name the Best Beer Pubs of Silicon Valley. In my previous column I asked for suggestions from readers. Did they ever comment. Summary: The South Bay is a (expletive deleted!!) beer desert.

Then I spent several days trekking around the South Bay checking out pubs. Whew. They weren’t kidding. There is no Toronado, no Bistro, no Barclay’s, no Ben & Nick’s, No Cato’s Ale House, no Lane Splitter, no Trappist Beer Cafe, no Luka’s, no Jupiter, no Albatross. (What? You’ve never heard of these places? E-mail me at whatsontap@sbcglobal.net and ask for our Good Beer Pub List.

And now some of those e-mails:

Hi, William ~ We travel for great beer – 3 or 4 trips a year to Oregon, San Diego and numerous trips to the wine country (no wine – Russian River and Bear Republic and Moonlight and 3rd Street Aleworks – they’re all so great). We’re headed to GABF this year – we could go on and on…..

So you’ve asked the question we’ve been trying to answer for 4 years (the beginning of our love affair with craft beer!). Where is a great beer bar in the South Bay??? We’re unable to help answer this question; in fact – we hope something exists in the South Bay that somehow has just managed to stay under the radar so we don’t have to drive to Pete’s Brass Rail or Hopyard Ale House so often.

But we don’t have much hope – just check out the listings in the Celebrator Hop Spots. … If a good beer bar exists anywhere in the South Bay(Empire Tap Room in Palo Alto has quiet a few decent taps, we’re told, but we consider that the Peninsula)

Firehouse Brewing logoJust a few weeks ago after a couple of pints with our favorite local brewer, Steve Donahue of Firehouse Grill and Brewing, we lamented the absence of exactly what you’re looking for; that wonderful combination of unique rotating brews and staff that can talk about it and in a perfect world, one that might even remember that you’d been there after your 10th visit (way too much to ask in most places, we find).

If we win the lottery, first thing we’re going to do is get the best beer bar in Northern California up and running (how about the same tap line up that was at Beerapalooza on Sunday….mmmmmm); if we don’t, we’re praying someone else takes an interest down here and fills a much needed gap in the craft beer scene – we’ll be their first customers.Best regards, Diane Crawford and Michael Luna

Hi Diane and Michael. Oh my. My heart bleeds for you guys. The South Bay is really a beer desert, isn’t it. I’ll take your advice and stay away from Paul and Eddies. Don’t both with Mission Street Ale House, great name, but more of a club than a pub. Indifferent bar staff, corporate beer list plus sierra nevada pala ale.
I’m going to have to visit Empire Tap Room soon.
Question? what about BJs, the chain pizza, brewpub in Cupertino. I hear they have a rotating list of guest beers that are excellent?

BJs CupertinoWilliam, I’ve visited BJ’s, and many of the BJ’s chain across the US. It is a chain and their beers are mainstream, the only good thing they have going is they have GUEST TAPS, which means I can get SN celebrator, or at times EL Toro Deuce there. Bj’s does an OK job as a chain, their IPA is good, the beers are true to style but a notch or two weaker for the masses, the Belgium beer selection can be good but I’m not too keen on that so my opinion has no bearing.

Based upon your request for good tap rooms I would never have thought of BJ’s – a brew pub with a couple guest taps. 21st Amendment (San Francisco) has guest taps as well, which is always great. I love it when a brewpub has guest taps. It shows they 1. trust their beers. 2. have the capacity to run taps/lines for additional beers. E. J. Phair in Concord comes to mind as well as a brewpub with plenty of great beer and guest taps. A great place in the new bustling downtown of concord. I keep wishing I could get the more extreme beers in bottles that you can only get in the pub. – Terry from San Jose

P.S. Oh Yeah, had a couple beers at El Toro today in Morgan Hill with Gino, the Brewer, have you beer there? He has 15+ tap of his OWN beer. Pretty cool how he does it. Let me know if you need more info. Terry.

Bill…You heard correctly about BJ’s. They usually have at least two guest beers. Normally it is something popular like Guinness or Bass, and then something a little more exotic. Tom.

You wrote (in the Merc):

I’m on a quest to find the best beer pubs in the South
Bay. I have three criteria.

One: A warm, friendly, welcoming place without
attitude or snobbery.

Two: A beer list that goes beyond the standards and
frequently offers new beers.

Three: Bartenders and waiters who are interested in
and care about beer.
————————-

Rose & Crown Palo Alto: http://www.jatbar.com

Rose and Crown pub in Palo Alto. Photo:http://www.jatbar.com. Used by permission.

I am afraid that the beer pubs in the south bay that meet your 3 criteria consist virtually of a null set. By far the best pub south of the city, in my view, is the Rose and Crown in (547 Emerson S.) Palo Alto (but I don’t know that this would be considered “South Bay”). It is the only pub that I know of that satisfies criteria #2 (by far
the most important of the criteria in my view).

The current owner/manager has been there about 2 years and is doing an excellent job of bringing in interesting beers and rotating some of them regularly. He is a
bit hampered by distribution (e.g., Russian River just does not come down here), but no other pub that I know of south of the city meets this most important
criteria #2. For brief example, on tap right now are Racer X, 2 vintages of North Coast Old Stock, Full Sail Slipknot, Double Daddy, Anchor Liberty, El Toro
Oatmeal Stout, etc. Other recent taps include Bigfoot, Chouffe Houblon, Goulden Draak, Green Flash Imperial IPA, Left Coast Hop Juice, Lagunitas Imperial
Red and Cappucino Stout, etc. I think you get the idea.

I think the Rose and Crown satisfies criteria #1 as well. Criteria #3 is hit or miss depending on who is behind the bar, but I don’t depend on the bartender’s
beer knowledge, so I rate this criteria as relatively unimportant.

Other than the Rose and Crown, pickings are extremely thin. The El Toro pub in Morgan Hill is supposed to be good, and certainly carries a wide range of beers
with some rotation (albeit El Toro beers), but I have not been there personally (and Morgan Hill stretches the definition of South Bay, too).

Trials in San Jose at least has a couple of interesting beers from English Ales Brewery (on cask) and a good atmosphere, but virtually no rotation.

City Pub in Redwood City has a few interesting beers, but hardly ever anything new, and is a bit more “upscale” in atmosphere.

All of the area brew pubs are essentially average or below, with Faultline probably the best of an uninspired bunch, in my view. Beyond that, you are left with some sports bars/pseudo\Irish pubs, etc. where you might find an ok tap or two, but no rotation of interesting beers. I hope I am wrong and you turn up some great pub[s] I don’t know about, but I doubt it. Barry

William — If you count Palo Alto as south bay, try Rose and Crown, 547 Emerson
St Palo Alto, CA 94301. They have a small collection of Belgian and
american craft beers.

I go there about once a month. It’s an OK place. The food is average. I like that they have Anchors ‘Liberty Ale’ on tap. I like that beer a lot. They also have some Belgian glasses to go with the beers they sell, which I think is a nice touch. I live in Cupertino and the pickings are slim down here. Other than the brewpubs that are here I really can’t think of any other place that has a great selection of beers in the south bay. If I want to get something different I have to go to Bev Mo or to the City. I wish there was a City Beer down here. Dave

Mission Pizza & Pub

Mission Pizza & Pub in Fremont. Easy access from San Jose, just off I-680 and worth the trip.

William...I nominate Mission Pizza in Fremont, they have attitude but it is the right kind of attitude. There are more than a few offerings on tap (approx 30) to accompany the best pizza in town. On Friday and Saturday nights there is live bluegrass playing. Since they are quite busy on these (and most) nights, be content to listen and sip a brew while you wait or call in your order to have it ready when you arrive. Sybil

William: You can’t go wrong with Mission Pizza & Pub in Fremont’s Mission San Jose District. They know their beer and serve a huge selection. All that and they make best pizza you’ll ever taste. They approach both with knowledge, experience, a focus on offering a quality product & the fun of introducing their customers to something new. I never miss the chance to stop by if I’m in the Fremont area but it’s also well worth a drive across the bay!

Don’t miss their LIVE Blue Grass/Country music, their Comedy nights or the Sun, Mon, & Tues double coupon days! Everyone I’ve introduced to it now calls it their new favorite place for Pizza &/or beer. I LOVE this place! Janis

Hey William, Ducked into Empire Tap Room today to see if anything
was different; I saw no evidence of rotation; same beers I have been seeing there for a long time, CA offerings consisted of Sierra Pale, Lagunitas IPA and Trumer Pils; a few from the NW (Rogue Dead Guy), Widmer Hefe, Deschutes (Mirror Pond or Black Butte (didn’t really pay attention)); rest were the large name Euro beers or pseudo craft beers.

So, while you certainly can get a decent beer to drink there, nothing unusual or out of the ordinary and no rotation to speak of.

They do have a nice outdoor dining patio area when the weather is nice, which I hear is the best part about the place. I’ve never eaten a meal there, however. Barry

William, I could write a diary of the dearth of pubs in the South Bay. I hate being negative and pessimistic but the reality is that the cost of doing business in the South Bay, (very high rents, cost of living —driving away good quality help/bartenders/waitstaff, insurance, etc.) makes it hard for many to operate in a good way.

So many operate their business and buying decisions based on “getting a good deal” (who will give them a free keg, etc.) that they totally ignore some basic principles as to how to operate a good business…

One recommendation: Empire Tap Room – downtown Palo Alto on Emerson – they definitely deviate a bit towards some eclectic beers. Usually pours their beers properly. Josie the owner – she is hands on and always around. What I love about her is that she is actually open to input and ideas and feedback. A high brow Palo Alto crowd that drinks more Rombauer Chardonnay than anything else. From reading your blogs and articles I know you like eclectic / boutique / unique craft beers. Those are still a very tough sell in the South Bay. San Jose correspondent.

William, Try Murphy’s Law in Sunnyvale. $2.00 happy hour pints, all drafts. Bob

William – If you find this elusive pub of perfection, please do share it with your readers! The closest thing I’ve found is 99 Bottles in Santa Cruz… but you have to
be willing to drive over the hill. Madeline

Hi Madeline…thanks for the suggestion. I’ve heard a lot about the place, but haven’t visited. Will have to do so soon. best. wb

El Toro logoHi William – I really enjoy your columns in the Merc, I’m a beer lover and home brewer. Your question today sets off one of my favorite rants – the complete LACK of first class beer pubs in the south bay. If you find one in santa clara county that meets all three of your points, I’ve sure never been there.My faves:
- El Toro brewpub, Morgan Hill – I don’t think you meant brewpubs but I’ll mention it anyway. They have more house brews than most places and I like most of them. Biggest problem is they’re too far away (I’m in Sunnyvale)

- Duke of Edinburgh, Cupertino – my favorite for atmosphere, and it’s close by, and they’re the only place nearby I can find Fuller’s. But they take their Englishness seriously – new beers are as unthinkable as putting the Giants game on the TV.

- Empire Tap Room, Palo Alto – good but not great beer selection, also a really superior liquor selection. It’s in downtown P.A. and a little yuppie but I wouldn’t say snobbish. The atmosphere is “restaurant with a good bar” rather than a drinking place. Chris

Wow Chris. You and I are on the same page. I really like El Toro too, it has a nice atmosphere and Gino makes an incredible assortment of decent beer.

William - I enjoy the brews, food and atmosphere at Britannia Arms on Almaden Expressway in San Jose. Second choice is Trials Pub on North 1st St in San Jose. SH
Thanks for the note Steve. I’m with you on Britannia Arms. I like the place. Had a plate of bangers and a Fuller’s ESB there recently. Perfect. If only they had a wider English beer selection

I like the pub atmosphere at Trials and the people who hang out there and the bar staff. My only criticism is the beer list’s a bit tired. Mostly big corporate beers… Guinness, Stellla Artois etc, although the three craft beers on handpump were a plus.

OK, this was just a selection. I received many more. So what do you think? I’m still open to suggestions. Post a comment here or email me at whatsontap@sbcglobal.net

And finally, in case you didn’t click on the column link, here’s my top four. Still haven’t found number five.
1. Mission Pizza & Pub, 1572 Washington Blvd, Fremont, (510) 651-6858..Reason: Awesome beer list, good pizza, friendly, family atmosphere.

2. Rose & Crown, 547 Emerson St., Palo Alto, (650) 327-7673, very good beer list, great staff, friendly pub atmosphere, an owner who really cares about beer.

3. El Toro Brewing Co., 17605 Monterey Road, Morgan Hill, (408) 782-2739, Geno Azevedo has 32 beers on tap, all his own and they range from drinkable to excellent and he rotates constantly. Warm, frieendly pub atmosphere. Worth a drive.

4. BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, 10690 N. De Anza Blvd., Cupertino. Relentlessly corporate, but nice. Friendly clientel, excellent wait staff. BJs beers brewed in Roseville are all drinkable. Excellent, impressive Belgian beer list.

BJs Cupertino tap handles
Tap handles at BJs in Cupertino.

Mission Pizza old beer cans

Old beer can display at Mission Pizza in Fremont.

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  • Bob

    I noticed that not one person mentioned Birk’s in Santa Clara. Probably because it’s upscale, a bit yuppie (although I could be dating myself with that assessment, since that’s really more of an 80′s/90′s word/evalutaion), and their beer list is mostly corporate/well known, but they have 18 beers on tap, so it’s never ALL corporate/big name. If you’re willing to go mid-afternoon or late-ish (8:30 or later), you won’t have to rub elbows with the tech crowd. It’s got an impressive liquor selection, and again, 18 beers on tap. If I’m totally out-of-line with this suggestion, let me know. I worked there in the 80′s, and haven’t been there in at least 10-years, so can’t speak to it’s strong or weak points currently, but 18 beers on tap is more than you see at most places…