Even if you have never set foot on the British Isles, the images of a pub are astoundingly old-school: dominant dark wood bar, friendly bartenders, a fireplace, beers on draft, and a menu offering a ploughman's lunch and some variety of a steak pie. All of this is served at a reasonable price. What's not to like?
However, British cuisine has endured a pounding by food press, relegated to the lesser global gastronomic ranks -- probably next to us and maybe Russia. (See a trend?) I have never agreed that a country that produced Harrods Food Hall should be ranked so pitifully. But the perception exists -- even though some talented chefs invented the idea of the trendy gastropub 20 years ago. Even though the village of Bray, in Berkshire, has two Michelin three-star restaurants: Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck, and The Waterside Inn. And even more to the point, a London pub, the Harwood Arms, was just awarded a Michelin star -- the first pub to do so.
British chefs who wanted to elevate pub food to the plane of the gastropub knew this pervasive preconception and have gone a long way to defend against it. With good timing, the gastropub arrived on this side of the pond to give the battered American wallets a reprieve. Beer, it turns out, has always had a better price point than wine.
Charlotte's diminished economy was clearly on the minds of co-owners Matthew Pera and Chef Tom Condron when they designed The Liberty, a gastropub in SouthEnd which opened last October. Both Pera and Condron had been Harpers Group veterans, learning the Charlotte market well. Pera, in fact, is a rare Charlotte native. Condron, a Brit by birth, earned his culinary training at Johnson & Wales University, Charleston, but has for more than a decade been a chef of distinction in Charlotte.
The Liberty is divided into two separate dining experiences. To the right of the main entrance is the bar area, complete with beer glass chandelier, a large bar fronting one side, booths, high top tables, dark walls trimmed with old beer advertisements, and a fireplace. Condron added the Brit touches: Royal Doulton jugs, a Spread Eagle pub sign, and a small book on the fireplace mantle by Elizabeth David, the mother of British "cookery" writing.
To the left of the entrance is the dining area with more beer as décor. Either side of Liberty is a fun, casual dining experience. Since opening, Condron's food has found its stride. The menu intends less to dazzle than to please. Categories include pub food -- complete with house-made pickles, appetizers, main courses, "and more." The more is a burger, grilled cheese, and fish and chips. This menu changes regularly. The Liberty has a selection of 70 beers, 20 on draft and 50 by the bottle.
Foods we would go back for include the pot of duck rilette -- which is the French way to say cooked in fat -- and any dish featuring the organic farro, an ancient grain we see too little of and is grown locally by Anson Mills.
In the tradition of gastropubs, the menu contains a variety of the classics, some with a drawl: banger sausages with pimento cheese, shrimp and grits, an iceberg wedge, and a roasted pork shoulder with some assembly required. Condron uses precisely cooked and loaded with flavor wild Scottish salmon for one dish. On another, the flounder, a more ambitious entrée, is a succulent package filled with tender shrimp and sautéed leeks.
What needed more oomph was the chili, which was well constructed, but lacked heat, while the sauce on the mussels was described as "angry" but was rather plaintive. The mussels themselves were disparate in size: some large, others small -- in other words, some cooked perfectly, others overcooked. Desserts include an apple walnut tart and a sticky toffee pudding -- gotta order a pudding in a pub, but both, on one night, had overstayed in the oven.
If there is a line for the ladies' room, it may well be people are in there reading the walls. One frame gives the origin of the saying "minding your Ps and Qs." Evidently, Ps and Qs are bartender shorthand for counting the number of pints and quarts customers had consumed in order to know when to cut them off.
Predictably, at times The Liberty is overrun with a cacophonous neighborhood crowd, and it's easier to get a seat in the bar than the dining room. Condron doesn't seem to miss a beat striking a balance between casual, pub-styled food and updated comfort items, and if his prices seem less pub-like and more gastropub-like, they may be. Entrées run $14 to $19. However, the quality of the food exceeds these prices.
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