Restaurant Review: Fork & Barrel

An Old World saloon on the Schuylkill.

It’s the age-old quandary: You want to go drinking with an oddball genius from a Wes Anderson film, but can’t locate a sufficiently quirky venue. Fret no more, because East Falls has the gastropub for you.

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Upstairs at Fork & Barrel, you’ll find a bulb-lit American saloon with cask-conditioned ales, hot jazz recordings from the wax-cylinder era, and a chalkboard menu given entirely to Nathan’s hot dogs. Plus, a barkeep who’ll insist you toss spent peanut shells on the floor.

Downstairs, say goodbye to electricity and hello to postmodern medievalism. Here, eighty-odd candles flicker in cavernous darkness, the beer list is an homage to avant-garde European brewing, and the headline item on the menu is a roasted pheasant that is served whole on a wooden block, pierced with a dainty serrated steak knife better suited to sectioning a grapefruit than to carving game.

Yes, Fork & Barrel’s idiosyncrasies verge on affectations. But there are genuine delights worth seeking at the restaurant’s communal wooden tables, starting with the exceptional beer list. Looking for a wood-aged lager brewed by Italian prison inmates? It’s here. Oxidized barleywine? Check! From an astonishingly fresh-tasting Weissenohe Annafest — an unpasteurized, Oktoberfest-style lager — to obscure bottles from Danish “gypsy brewer” Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, co-owner Matt Scheller (who also runs Bookstore Speakeasy in Bethlehem and Tap and Table in the Lehigh Valley) covers the diversity of European craft brewing with his beer program better than anyone else in town.

Chef Peter Felton’s central-European comfort food shows promise. He sinks pillowy dumplings in splendid borscht rich with an earthy sweetness that makes you want to taste the beet plot’s topsoil. And I liked the acidic bursts of grape tomatoes over a moody oxtail-and-hazelnut ragu. Dressing duck confit with funky gruit ale sauce is a good idea — both taste-wise and as a glimpse of an ancient beer style — even if serving it on brioche isn’t. (Too sweet.)

Sadly, that pheasant’s subtle gaminess was vandalized by salt; Felton should spend less time brining and more carving. And if green beans taste and squeak like Styrofoam, he shouldn’t serve them. But the raw oysters are a good bet, with a bracing lambic mignonette, and so is the stove-top-smoked trout.  

Fork & Barrel has kindled an earnest warmth that tempers its quirk. And if you get tipsy around candles, rest easy. The 35th Fire Engine Company is directly across the street.

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