Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Little Britain: The Olde English Pub and Pantry, Albany, NY

The U.S. has 8 billion "Irish" pubs (I'm making that number up)—O'Flannigan's, McKerry's, The Blarney Stone, Griffy's McCools, Finn O'Bannion's, The Shamrock, and the like (I'm making those up, as well—as far as I know.) All of them have blaring TVs and loud music; carboard Bud Lite shamrocks, from 2004, hanging from the ceiling; and shitty corned beef and green beer on St Patrick's Day—Oh, and drunks, lots of drunks.
"Irish" named pubs are a universal constant, stateside. Don't get me wrong, there is a place for these bars—and I have in fact had, on a number of occasions, had a very god time in those kinds of bars—especially on St. Patrick's Day. What we don't have many of however, are English pubs. I don't mean the equivalant bar to the above, with the Union Jack replacing the Irish Tricolor—I mean proper English pubs.

Thanks to the restaurateur über team of Matt Baumgartner, Jimmy and Demetra Vann, and Mark Graydon and his wife Greta, that's changed here in Albany. Just over a week ago, they opened the Olde English—an homage to all thing British and pubby. Those of you from this area are familiar with their earlier endeavours—Bomber's Burrito Bar, the divey, late-night eatery-cum–nightlife, hot spot on Lark Street in Albany, and as of 2009, on State Street in Schenectady; as well as the the Albany mega-hit on North Pearl Street—Wolf's Biergarten.

I don't usually do hometown pub posts because, honestly Albany isn't Manhattan or London, it's Albany. Chances are, if you're not from here, you're not coming here. Really, how many of you are going to travel from say, Brazil (They do love me in Brazil, though) to upstate New York on my recommendation? Not many I'd guess. However, every once in a while a place comes around that's a little bit special—at least in my eyes. I've been looking forward to stopping by the new place, although I will admit, I've already seen a sneak preview of the beer list. It also happens that my good friend Aaron turned 31 this week—and what goes better with a birthday than beer? So, we hopped in the car—myself, Aaron and of course, my best-bud Carrie, for a taste of Britain, right here in good, old Albany. Now, this isn't our first time at the rodeo—us Yanks, do know a thing or two about the U.K. Aaron spent some time in England, while in college, so he's our proper pub ringer—so to speak. I watch both Top Gear and Dr. Who on BBC America, so I am, obviously, an expert in British culture; while Carrie was, well, Carrie was just aong for the ride—and the beer—so she's our newbie, when it comes to English pubiness.

The Olde English opened in a 1730s era building, once occupied by the venerable, Albany restaurant, Nicole's at Quackenbush Square, so it's location couldn't be more perfect. The pub itself, has a homey feel, with a simple, wooden bar and stools; a black boarded beer menu; low, beamed ceilings and wide plank, hardwood floors. Goose neck lamps cast a warm yellow glow throughout the room, while mismatched chairs, and framed pictures of fox hunts and high-collared gents, give it a very English vibe. A portrait of Churchill hanging on a nouveau patterned, wallpapered fireplace, keeps silent watch over the punters as they read the paper or finish-off the last of their pint.

We had our priorities on this outing, so we headed right the bar area, upon arrival. We went with a trio of Scottish brews. I grabbed up a pint of Harvieston's Bitter and Twisted while the other two went for Bellhaven's Twisted Thistle. Twelve other U.K. draught beers are available—eveything from Fuller's London Pride to Harvieston's Old Engine Oil—and even Carlsberg and Foster's to add a touch of authenticity. They also offer a number of U.K. made bottled beer and sixteen—count em' sixteen—different Scotch Whiskies (I might have to switch the direction of the blog, because of that!) Now the purists out there are going to get their knickers in a bunch—they don't have any hand pumps. All the draught beer is keg beer, but in their defense getting, and keeping, twelve U.K. casks going in a U.S. pub, would be nearly impossible. But, it would be cool if they got one (Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more.) The beer was great, light and hoppy, served in dimpled pint mugs, and slightly undercarbonated—if I didn't have to back to work, I may have snuck another one. Although, they were a bit on the pricey side, $7–$8 each—but don't worry, I can get past that. Interestingly enough, aside from the two lagers, the only other non-U.K. or Irish-made beer is also the only American-made beer available—Ommegang Witte.

The food was great, leaning more traditional pub grub than gastropub. However, the selection might be a little more recognizable to the average Brit than to an American—no burgers and chicken wings, at this place! They only offer pub classics like shepard's pie and fish and chips, and few more traditional items like fried bangers and the ubiquitous meat pie. There's no table service, you order at the bar or register, pay, and they bring the food out. So, no true servers, just food runners. It's a little clunky, but I'm sure people will get used to it. Although the inside was fun, we chose to sit outside on the patio, under the shadow of a red, London phone booth. Aaron and I went for the bangers and chips (urp!) while Carrie got the jacket (baked) potato with chile con carne. Carrie was taken aback by a few of the potato toppings—like tuna salad or baked beans—but, to each Englishman, his own. Eitherway, she stuck with the chile. I wonder what she would've thought if they had spotted dick? Anyhow, all the menu items were very reasonably priced, between $6 and $8, so a good value for some pretty unique eats.

All-in-all, I'm glad to see this place open. I have a special place in my heart for British beer (and food), so it's good to have a little bit more of it around. Is it 100% totally authentic, probably not— but I'm not sure that matters. The group behind the pub has a knack for doing theme bars, and what makes these place fun, is that they become part of the fabric of the city. They initially bring foreign ideas—like currywurst or tuna salad on potatoes—and along the way, those ideas get shaken up and mixed with the culture of Albany, and morph into something new. These places become identified, by the folks who live in Albany, not only as an English pub or a German biergarten, but as our English pub and our German biergarten. The Olde English Pub and Pantry isn't just a British pub in Albany—it's an Albany pub that just happens to have a British accent.

Dum da dum dum... Albania, rule the waves...


  1. We haven't been yet but I just wanted to comment based on your description that it sounds to me like it IS authentic. In the UK you order your food at the bar and they then serve it to you. Most pubs have numbers on the table and you give the bar your number so they know which table to bring it to. Jacket potatoes with tuna or cheesy baked beans is extremely common food in the UK. Sausage and chips- common. Now if they have lasagna and chips I'll know it's authentic. Also, if they don't have chicken tikka masala on the menu then they aren't 100%....there isn't a pub in the UK that doesn't have chicken tikka on the menu. The pub food may be weird to Americans but for British ex-pats like us it will be like going home.
    ps- please don't go to the UK and refer to whisky as "scotch whiskie" if you don't want your head to be battered in. The usage of the word "scotch" is horrendously bad. And you spelled whisky wrong.

  2. You can't beat a taste of home. I'm sure Mark had a good bit to do with the pub's authenticity, he's a Brit. I have know idea about any additional menu items, but it wouldn't surprise me if tikka shows up. I'm not so sure sweet corn on pizza will, though!

    Onto the boozy comment. I used Scotch to differentiate it from American or Irish Whiskey. As far as the spelling goes, the plural of whisky is whiskies, while the plural of whiskey is whiskeys.

  3. The Beer is over priced. The bar is very small. Over themed. Scale of 1 to 10....6.

  4. I want on a weeknight and really enjoyed the feel - there were interesting beers, friendly staff, and delicious bread pudding. The one drawback - Matt Baumgartner's perpensity to give young bro-dudes giant cups of beer/margarita on their birthdays at all his establishments can quickly turn a mellow night out at a pub into a raucus yelling mess of people doing silly dances at your table looking for a reaction. The overly-drunk youngins' really ruined the vibe. Perhaps save the oversized birthday drinks for Bombers and don't let the kids ruin the Beergarten and the Olde English Pub for those of us looking for a lower-key time.

  5. @3rd Anonymous—Yeah, no good.

  6. Was there last weekend. Beautiful space, and a nice vibe. If they got true cask ale, I'd be there every week. They should at least serve the Old Speckled Hen warm.

  7. Well Jerry, you might be interested in this: