Uptown Beer Garden gets a new chef, a huge grill and a custom IPA

Justin Petruce is super proud of his Carolina pig-cooker — plus three bars will pour drafts, including a bespoke ale from Pizza Boy.

How do you make your Philly beer garden stand out?

Spruce Street Harbor Park is back already, Point Breeze Pop-Up is opening Memorial Day Weekend, and PHS will launch its two pop-ups in early June (South Street first, then at Reading Viaduct). Non-pop-up seasonal spots are also rolling along, like the Haas Biergarten outside La Peg and the Independence Beer Garden next to the Liberty Bell, which now sports three different bars offering up cold ones.

To separate itself from the crowd, Bru/U-Bahn owner Teddy Sourias is banking on a giant grill — and a hot chef to run it — plus an IPA custom-brewed just for him.

When the Sourias-run Uptown Beer Garden makes its second-year debut this Thursday in the courtyard behind the BNY Mellon Wealth building (1735 JFK Blvd.), it will serve a menu by chef Jonathan Petruce.

Petruce, for any who’ve lost track or don’t know, was chef and proprietor at Petruce et al in Wash West, along with his brother Justin. Before they folded the operation last year, their wood-fired cooking racked up stellar reviews, including three bells from the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan. (Why’d it close, then? Possibly something to do with not being the right concept for the location.)

For Uptown, Petruce will be playing with fire once again, only this time he’ll be doing in the open air — something he’s psyched about.

“I found a pretty bad-ass grill,” he says. “It’s a Carolina pig cooker, huge. It fits a whole pig on it.”

There’s no kitchen in the courtyard, which is decorated with shady trees and picnic tables, so the grill is where he’ll do just about all of his prep work. He describes the offerings as the kind of backyard BBQ that he would cook at home.

“Maybe no one else would make octopus skewers in their yard, but I would,” he says. Other skewers on the list include chimichurri beef and Turkish chicken. There will also be sandwiches. Petruce is especially happy with his take on a cheesesteak: fresh-sliced beef with a housemade cheese sauce and onions cooked with fresh thyme, all on a Liscio’s roll that’s been spread with melted beef tallow. He’s also working on what is aiming to be the city’s most affordable lobster roll (price still TBD, but expect a deal).

Why join the beer garden craze?

“I wasn’t doing anything else,” he says plainly (his brother took a job cheffing at Kevin Sbraga’s Jacksonville spot). “Plus, who doesn’t like to drink outside? I don’t think pop-up beer gardens are going anywhere, so we might as well make them interesting. You see serious chefs getting involved all over,” he adds, calling out Jason Ciconski and Sylva Senat at PHS Viaduct and Jeremy Nolen at the SkyGarten at Top of the Tower.

Complementing Petruce’s eats at Uptown this year will be a bigger and better bar program, put together by operations director Alex Bokulich, the man responsible for Bru’s impressive beer list.

A brand new draft trailer ups the number of bars to three (matching the number at IBG), and each will pour from eight taps. Usually $6 or $7 a pop, the beers — which range from Sprecher grapefruit radler to Half Acre Daisy Cutter IPA — will be just $4 during the 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday happy hour. A trio of cans are also on offer, as are cocktails and wine.

“We have a very strong list here, with a nice balance of easy drinking, fruity, Belgian-y and of course hops,” says Bokulich, “but the cherry on top is Pizza Boy’s custom Uptown IPA.”

It’s not a rebranding of an existing beer, a practice that’s often used to introduce a “house ale,” he explains, but a totally unique brew that’s only available in one location. “I approached their impresario brewmaster Terry Hawbacker a while back to see if he would accommodate a special request.”

Uptown IPA is a pale golden, light-bodied IPA with tropical hop aromatics and minimal back end bitterness. Bokulich describes it as being “similar to the wildly popular ‘New England IPAs’ but without that turbid appearance, and with low bittering hops so it doesn’t strip the enamel off your teeth!”

In a change this year, Uptown Beer Garden will be open weeknights only — understandable since it’s located in an office-heavy district that doesn’t see much weekend traffic — with planned operation continuing through September 30. Bonus (or forewarning, depending on your style): Wednesdays starting May 25, it will participate in Center City SIPS, offering the standard $5 cocktails, $4 wines, $3 beers and half-priced appetizers that go with the citywide promotion.

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