Ryan Loughlin here, Associate editor at At The Shore.
Welcome to my new column. It’s cleverly titled “The Pub Scout” (See what I did there? It’s almost like ‘cub scout’, but since this column is about bars … yup, pure genius. That’s why they pay me the big bucks.) You see it every week in At The Shore with no conceivable end in sight. You’re welcome/I’m sorry (whichever applies).
Just so you know, I’m pretty opinionated, and have very specific tastes. But that aside, I do know good beer, good food, good music and good cocktails. This column will feature my candid opinions on all four.
Think of it as an adventure — a guided tour if you will into all the nooks and crannies (honestly what kind of journalist would I be if I only explored the nooks and ignored the crannies?) of your favorite local neighborhood watering holes. I love a great bar, but in order for a bar to achieve the status of “great” it’s gotta have the perfect blend of ambiance and the right crowd, along with a killer menu of both food and drinks. A great old-school jukebox packed with ‘80s songs wouldn’t hurt either, but those are tough to find.
In order to give you the true experience, I will explore each bar as a basic customer would. That means no calling in advance so they can be ready, no overly polished “management-approved” versions of what goes on, just an honest and candid take on what it might be like if you were to stop in and grab a few pints of beer on any given night. So I invite you all to join me on this trek into one of the great joys in life — a few hours at a pub.
It’s about 2:30 p.m. on the Friday before New Year’s Eve. It’s freezing outside. As I pull up in front of Bocca Coal Fired Bistro in Margate I am legitimately surprised that I have to circle the block in order to find available parking. What bar is crowded at this time of day? This one evidently.(tncms-asset)7465720e-cdfe-11e6-ba79-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
In truth it’s tough to pin down the identity of Bocca Coal Fired Bistro. The name of course conjures up images of traditional Italian eateries, specifically those with coal-burning ovens, but neither the vibe here nor the menu really matches that.
A modern, gray brick exterior sets the scene, and once through the large wooden doors one is greeted with an artsy room divider/sculpture that almost looks like it would be equally at home in a trendy lounge. But Bocca is no trendy lounge, and frankly, that is one of its strong suits. The interior consists of three main areas — two separate dining rooms, and a bar accented by wooden booths and blue-sheathed hanging lights. There are a trio of TVs hanging, but the vibe is more modern gastropub than sports bar.
As foreshadowed by the tricky parking situation, I am greeted by a bar area that is nearly filled to capacity. I struggle to locate a seat that won’t make me feel self-conscious, as I am flying solo on this particular outing and find dining alone in a restaurant that involves waitresses to be brutally awkward. Sitting at a table for one makes me feel like a widow or some type of creepy, friendless drifter — I avoid it like tap water in Mexico City.
But the crowd here is a friendly one, and mercifully someone reads my unease and offers me a stool at the bar that just became available. I sit and order a Captain and Coke.
Captain and Coke is a simple, two-ingredient cocktail, yet you would be surprised at how many bartenders either over- or under-pour the rum on this drink, and the ratio really needs to be just right in order for it to taste the way it was intended. Luckily the barkeep here is skilled, and she nails it on the first try.
The scene here is locals-driven, and there is definitely a feeling that you are among regulars. Friendly regulars though, of mixed ages, most seeming to be welcoming to those who may be from out of town. As I glance around I notice a sign advertising their daily happy hour which runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Hardly an hour, but at least the packed house is starting to make more sense — $2.50 domestic drafts plus $5 house wines and well drinks for seven straight hours is bound to make more than a few folks wander in.
After a few sips of my drink I crack open the menu.
Full disclosure: I already know that the chef here is a favorite — Robert Pappas. He is one of the best in the area, a creative guy who knows how to get big flavors out of simple ingredients. With that in mind, I decide to sample a few things. I go with a holy trinity of pub grub — onion rings, some wings and a burger.(tncms-asset)fd77a65c-cddb-11e6-974a-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
The rings and wings come out first. As onion rings go, these are exceptional. The batter — which is made with black and tan beer — is crispy but not greasy and the side of BBQ sauce that comes with it adds a nice bit of sweetness to round the whole thing out. For the wings I went with the hot honey variety and walked into one of my pet peeves with wings — a rubbery texture. Now to be fair, these were not the usual deep-fried variety that you typically see, and this can often be a problem with wings that are grilled or baked. There are a few culinary tricks to getting a non-fried wing to be crispy, but sadly none were employed on this day. That said, flavor-wise they were spot-on, and the smokiness was well-appreciated.
As for the burger, it was an absolute home run. Called the All American Burger, it’s simple in design: a basic cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato and onion — I added bacon because you’d be a fool not to — yet it was outstanding. A blend of short rib, chuck and brisket perfectly cooked medium-rare with a slightly sweet brioche bun crowning it with pride like the royalty it was. Pappas nailed it.(tncms-asset)e2fafe16-d1cb-11e6-97b3-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
Not much could be heard musically on this trip, but I did notice that they feature live jazz on Wednesday nights. In a laid-back place like this, that would add a nice touch to the overall vibe.
I hung out for around an hour, paid my bill and left satisfied. Bocca would be a welcome stop for me on any outing to the Margate area. Not bad for the first crack at Pub Scouting. They earned their merit badge. See you next week.