When you pair eating and live entertainment, there’s always the risk of one of two imbalances. Either it’s an eatery hoping to put butts in chairs by offering some stiff with his guitar crooning in the corner, or it’s a music bar trying to feed the tipsy and careless with whatever microwave pizza it can find. One will give you a headache, the other a gut ache. But there are plenty of good places in town that hit the balance of good vibes along with a good menu, and since this is the season to gather and frolic, I stopped into two of the newest venues.
In a strange building decked with yoga and Caribou Coffee signs that battle for your attention, Crooked Pint Ale House sits in the former 501 Club space on Washington Avenue. It’s a double-decker room—the main floor is packed with tables, booths, and the stage, while upstairs you’ll find a big bar under the tin ceiling. It has a very exposed-brick, dark-wood, “American pub” feel, and when there’s not someone on stage, a monster screen occupies the space, broadcasting sports during lunch and free movies on Sunday nights. Besides football and movies, the stage hosts Sassy Lassy trivia night, a no-cover house band, and popular acts such as Boogie Wonderland and the bluesy Paul Metsa.
The menu claims to put a spin on American pub classics and offers everything from all-day breakfast to steaks to bison meatloaf and a pot roast dinner. Juicy, nicely cooked burgers arrived wrapped in paper with a good bun. The Hangover Lucy stuffed with ham and cheese and topped with egg was a worthy version, and the Crooked Californian proved a yummy mess with arugula, avocado, and special sauce. Appetizers fell flat, however. Chicken nachos were a mass of coagulated cheese, dry rub wings were bland, and the chorizo corn dogs were sort of half-battered and sad. Execution seemed to be lacking on a few other things as well. The beer list offers taps of local and national crafts along with bottles of mainstream beer. All in all, it’s a good-time place with an easygoing vibe, but you can tell that it is being packaged for franchising.
Amsterdam Bar and Hall, on the other hand, feels like an original. Funny enough, the place is owned by Jon Oulman, who also owns the 331 Club and formerly the 501 Club, where Crooked Pint now sits. It seems he has learned a thing or two about the downtowns and has chosen the other side of the river this time. The inside of the former Pop! space has been completely transformed to be dark and cool, and it reads “bar” from the get-go. Tapestry hangings cut the room in half, allowing for a separate stage area. Around the horseshoe bar there are high-top booths angled here and there, each table lit with a tall taper candle dripping into a skillet. The calendar is jammed with local bands, edgy music, Trivia Mafia nights, and events such as Books & Bars.
Food is not an afterthought but is still bar-appropriate. Keeping with the name, the menu offers Dutch snacks. Broodjes are small sandwiches that come on fresh, plump buns brushed with a little garlic aioli. Choose your filling: House-made sausage, creamy Dutch cheese, crisp bacon, roasted tomato, and fried eggplant are all great choices—they deliver a flavor hit that is simple but satisfying, and utterly craveable. Belgian-style fries with chopped onions were well-cut and tasty, and the accompanying curry ketchup was right on, but the peanut sauce was oddly creamy and lumpy. Mussels in a bright broth were beautiful, but since everything is served in a paper boat, they were a bit awkward and dangerously soupy. The beer list is a Belgian beer-lover’s dream with some bottles that exist nowhere else in town, much of it served in curvy glasses with painted gnomes as a bonus. The fact that this joint is organically a joint, means that service might be a bit slow and things may not function as much like a restaurant as a bar, because remember, it’s a bar.
In the end you have two very different choices. I’d say if the old college pals are back in town for the holidays and you want to go grab a burger and relive the old days, go to Crooked Pint. If you’ve found beer geek commonality with your new neighbor and want to seal the bond with cool points on a night out, go to Amsterdam.