Restaurant Review: City Tap House

Going beyond burgers and beer in University City

Craft-brew lovers have had a rich run in Philadelphia lately. From the runaway success of Philly Beer Week to the mounting competition among carryout stores (South Philly spot Hawthornes now boasts 1,000 bottles), the carbonated life has taken on the verve of a religious revival.

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It doesn’t stop there. Local beer cultists now have a place to dance around stone fire pits while sipping their microbrews: City Tap House’s mezzanine patio, with its splendid green roof of succulents and flowering forbs. Yet this University City spot has more going for it than environmental bona fides (or the faux-rustic gas-fired furnaces that undercut them).

For starters, the lofty, wood-timbered interior frames a giant copper-topped bar outfitted with a whopping 60 taps. From stouts to wheats, IPAs to Belgians, gluten-free beer to a -juniper-spiced ale aged in old gin barrels, the daily-changing inventory is immense. If you can’t find something that sparks your interest here, it’s time to quit drinking.

The food ranges almost as widely. Chef Al Paris covers the usual pub-grub bases — burgers, mussels, sandwiches — but only so he can wander into the culinary outfield with a weekly rotation of supper specials that wouldn’t be out of place at a season-driven BYO. One highlight is Tuesday’s rabbit three ways: hindquarters slow-roasted with oregano, two long loin strips seared and finished in the oven, rib-cage meat tossed with a white-bean fricassee set off by dried tomatoes. Friday’s striped bass is a lighter pleasure, the crispy-skinned filet draped with a winey currant reduction that has a pleasing thyme-scented tang.

Delicate touches abound — quick-pickled fennel to enliven a nut-strewn citrus salad; roasted lemon halves to give some meats and fish a slightly sweeter spritz; pizzas with surprisingly crisp crusts — but there are huge flavors, too. The alt-Reuben, one of the best sandwiches in town, marries pickled red cabbage with a hunk of brisket tenderized by 18 hours of smoke. A whole pot of Pernod-and-saffron-spiked mussels in an achingly sweet garlic cream gets tiresome, but half a dozen from a communal order are delightful.   

Pubs with deep beer programs often coast along on the strength of their suds alone, or allow beer to infiltrate every other dish for novelty’s sake. By falling into neither trap, Philly’s latest gift to beer geeks is also a score for the casual dinner crowd.

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