Pub food is on tap at the new Crooked Pint Ale House on Washington Avenue. Its space most recently housed the 501 Club, but that venue didn't attract enough indie-rock fans to its business- and sports-oriented corner of downtown. The new venture is catering to the nearby office workers and sports fans with a more generic, all-things-to-all-people concept—and seems to be largely succeeding. Mario Cocchiarella, who also owns the building, is the first franchisee of a new concept by the people behind the Green Mill and Twisted Fork. (While the latter and the Crooked Pint are innocuous names on their own, a strange theme emerges when they're considered together. Maybe plans are underway now for the Swiveled Spoon or the Cockeyed Tap?)
Actually, there might be more Crooked Pints popping up at some point. "This is a franchise related to Green Mill, although really separate from the Green Mill brand," Cocchiarella says. "This is kind of a test one for them. We had an idea for a pub-restaurant with the music and film and everything we're doing, and we married that to an idea they had for a new pub feel.... So far it's been a terrific partnership."
"Everything we're doing" includes quite a bit of stuff. The two-level space now features warm wood and a faux tin ceiling above the bar. The sound system has been upgraded. "There's no question that we made a big commitment to live music," says Cocchiarella. While renovating the building, he says, "We invested a serious amount of money in both treatment of the acoustics in the space as well as the sound and video equipment." That equipment is pumping out live music several nights a week (some shows are free, others have a cover charge), leaning mostly toward cover bands and other middle-of-the-road fare. Then there's the giant screen that shows free movies on Sunday nights (The Ring, The Shining, and other horror titles screened in October) as well as weekend football games, both NFL and college. There's music-and-movie trivia on Wednesday nights. On Saturdays and Sundays the place opens up at 7 a.m. for breakfast—perhaps hoping to attract conflicted patrons of the next-door yoga studio? Or not: "What we were trying to do with that was accommodate those people that were coming early for both the Vikings and Gophers games," Cocchiarella says. "We're going to keep that through February and then we'll see what the response has been."
Twisted Fork chef Kevin Kvalsten designed the menu and got things started, then went back to his regular gig, leaving chef Brian Concati in charge. "We spent about six, eight months with Kevin and the Green Mill staff developing a new menu that would be conducive for this particular kind of urban pub," Cocchiarella says. The menu they came up with is so extensive it's bound to include dishes that are good, bad, and middling. The something-for-everyone method is almost never perfectly executed, but my sampling turned up more hits than misses.
Appetizers are all familiar, some slightly tweaked. One good bet for a starter is the tempura mushrooms: The light batter is an improvement over the thick breading that usually coats this bar-food staple. Chorizo corn dogs were also a nice update on the lowbrow favorite, bite-sized and lightly spicy in a cornmeal coating, served with a honey Dijon dipping sauce. The Ellsworth cheese curds were a satisfying, almost State Fair-worthy version, served with spicy ketchup that's truly spicy, not Minnesota spicy. But stay away from the deviled eggs: The fact that they're topped with bacon makes them tempting, but the yolk filling tasted completely unseasoned as well as being oddly stiff and chalky.
The kitchen excels at comfort food: The bison meatloaf with the same spicy ketchup was a familiar home-cooking dish tweaked enough to add interest without upsetting purists. And the Washington Avenue pot roast dinner was a winner: The fall-apart tender, flavorful meat was served alongside creamy mashed potatoes and roasted asparagus.
The walleye sandwich has succulent fish encased in a light cornmeal breading and pan-fried, served in a hearty hoagie bun. The grilled Cubano sandwich was a classic, pleasing version, and the hefty Triple-Decker Crooked Club included two kinds of bread, whole wheat and sourdough, along with the meat trifecta of ham, turkey, and bacon. The only disappointment (albeit a major one) with the sandwiches turned out to be the accompanying French fries, which were sadly mushy every time and flavored with a boring seasoned salt. You can get cole slaw as a side instead, but then you'll end up with two containers of the same salad on your plate, as a smaller cup of slaw already comes with most sandwiches. The other option is a side of Eleanora's Antipasti (Roma tomatoes, cucumber, and celery tossed in oregano and olive oil).
Salads at the Crooked Pint are better than at most bar-food eateries: The roasted beet and Caprese versions were both fresh and enjoyable, featuring the same mix of greens topped with red and yellow beets and Feta (plus a tangy Dijon vinaigrette) for the former and cherry tomatoes, fresh Mozzarella, and basil with a red wine vinaigrette for the latter.
For dessert, the Ancho Diablo cake is highly recommended: Moist layers of rich chocolate cake surround a buttercream spiced with ancho chiles; there's just the right amount of kick to offset the sweetness. Bittersweet chocolate ganache and whipped cream top off this decadent but not heavy treat. There's also cheesecake and several Sebastian Joe's ice cream options, including the Surly Bender Beer flavor.
The menu also includes burgers, steaks, chicken wings, nachos, and a bunch of other stuff I didn't get to, such as the breakfast items that are served all day. There's a kids' menu for diners 12 and under. And in case you're not sure what to drink with your meal, Crooked Pint even offers a list of recommended beer and food pairings. (I'll offer that a rich, lightly roasted-tasting Deschutes Hop in the Dark IPA would be delicious alongside almost any of the menu items.)
There's plenty to draw in after-work drinkers: Happy hour is from 3 to 7 p.m. every day, offering $3 Grain Belt and Summit taps, $1 off all craft-beer taps, and $2 off all appetizers. There are also daily drink specials that last all day, including $4 Tanqueray and Tonics on Tuesdays and $3 Windsor cocktails on Wednesdays. The Crooked Pint's approach seems like a good fit for the location: It will never be the coolest place in the Cities or a big draw for foodies, but it's a fine spot for a disparate group of co-workers, family members, or friends (a 30th birthday was being conspicuously celebrated one recent weeknight, complete with balloon bouquet) where no one will feel out of place.