Where every bloke knows your name
If libraries are where esoteric knowledge goes to quietly retire, Merlin's Rest is just the opposite: It's where obscure trivia grabs a black and tan and chats up the brunette at the end of the bar. Based on the banter from the bar's staffers and the erudition of its patrons, there's a Welsh incarnation of the Blarney Stone somewhere on-site, and nearly every regular has kissed it.
Merlin's Rest is what you think—scratch that, it's what you hope—a British pub would feel like. Good beer on draught. Hearty food. Semiweekly quiz nights that would intimidate Jeopardy champions. A Falstaffian gentleman holding court from a leather-lined booth on the esoterica of the European settlement of the New World: "And then, of course, there were the Anabaptists, not to be confused with the Huguenots, who tended to settle in the Maritime Provinces...."
The food at Merlin's Rest has few strikes against it. It's not ideal warm-weather fare, it's true (with its emphasis on pasties, fish 'n' chips, a variant of shepherd's pie, etc.), but with a surprisingly generous vegetarian section of the menu, the food is lighter on its feet than it looks.
The fish 'n' chips are best taken British style, pretreated with malt vinegar. Neither overly heavy nor flyaway, this substantial pollock- or tilapia-based, beer-battered pub favorite ($8.75) pops with surprisingly fresh flavor. The Merlin's Rest cottage pie ($9.25 or $5.75 for the "cup" size) is also worth a try. A mix of garlic mashed potatoes, melted cheddar cheese, onions, ground beef, carrots, and parsnips, this is British soul food made accessible. (Read: not a jellied eel.)
Overheard from the booth: "Of course the Germans gravitated toward Pennsylvania in general and the river valleys in particular. If you've ever been to the Susquehanna River area, for example, you know what I'm talking about...."
Visitors to Merlin's Rest are at a real disadvantage if they don't enjoy beer or, in particular, Scotch. A first-Thursdays Scotch-tasting event plays up the pub's depth and breadth of selection. Those seeking the peaty, seaweedy, fiery, and/or spicy taste of the Isles won't be disappointed.
Breakfast at Merlin's Rest is an honest-to-God cultural experience. Beans with fried tomatoes and sausage ($7.25)? This is actually considered breakfast in someone's culture? Yes. Also worth noting: It's ravishingly good. The salty sausage, sweet beans, and bright tomatoes all contribute to the party, leaning on one another to form a strangely hypnotic triad. Add a side of Irish bacon ($3.50), and you're really doing breakfast right. Cut from the less fatty back of the beast, and less crispy than the American incarnation, Irish bacon is a lot like a thick pancetta and is a surprisingly satisfying alternative to even thick-cut and well-seasoned local belly bacons.
Fade out a bit after your meal and tune in to the chatter filling the room. Two guys at the bar are arguing over which organ is the body's biggest. And over at the booth, the sage is pivoting skillfully from the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th and 18th centuries: "That reminds me of a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne...."
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