Shortly after finishing my first meal at Flying Fish Crafthouse, as I was waiting outside in the western reaches of Brewerytown for an eight-minutes-away Uber, my server barreled out the front door looking for me.
I went instinctively to my pockets, figuring I’d left my wallet or keys. But no. She just wanted to say thanks and goodnight and, “please come back. And bring your friends.”
Behind her, beyond the roll-up glass garage doors, orderly rows of raw oak-topped picnic tables sat empty — a beer garden minus the garden and minus the beer drinkers. I felt for her. At prime time on a Saturday night, the majority of the bodies milling about this former Acme distribution warehouse wore black T-shirts with the gold Crafthouse logo stamped above their hearts.
That may soon change, according to Flying Fish Brewing Co. founder Gene Muller, as the six-month-old Crafthouse (in which he is a licensee, not a partner) “starts the transition to a true beer hall [with] less table service, more self-serve elements and a simplified menu.” Think Frankford Hall, with a roof.
The space seems well built for that purpose. It dominates 8,000 square feet on the ground floor of the chi-chi Fairmount @ Brewerytown, one of the manifold real estate developments either revitalizing or ruining Brewerytown (your call). You enter from 31st Street into the beer garden, which has already been converted to counter-style service; you order from the bar at the far side of the room. A short metal staircase leads to the main level, home to two more bars flanking a forest of high-tops, an outdoor patio, an open kitchen, a rear dining room and bathrooms whose unisex hand-washing area is big enough to fit most Center City BYOBs.
Beer is not brewed here. Licensing challenges led owners Brian Duffy (chef and former Spike TV personality), Dana Spain (PAWS founder and former owner of Philadelphia Style) and Sean McGovern — their McSpain Properties is developing the building’s residential lofts — to instead court Muller, who could do the next best thing: Water the restaurant’s 16 draught lines with his greatest hits and a few location-exclusive brews. The latter are clearly marked on the menu, but if you’re looking to discover rare, retired or reserve Flying Fish products, this isn’t necessarily where to go. The Crafthouse is more of a place to drink than to savor fine beer.
Muller says more unique options are coming (including a brew aged in Dad’s Hat Rye barrels) and in the future, beer may be made on site. But for now, instead of a city-wide destination, the partners have a capable clubhouse for the neighborhood with affordable prices and a friendly staff. And in light of recent controversies surrounding development and racial division in Brewerytown, it’s heartening to see diversity in both the customers and staff. Burgers and pints of spicy Wallonian Rye won’t resolve the thorny issue of gentrification, but a space where new and old residents feel welcome has value.
Duffy, a Bala Cynwyd native and corporate restaurant lifer who appeared as a culinary expert for three seasons of Bar Rescue, has put together a casual, complementary menu replete with on-brand infusions of beer.
Flying Fish ESB enriches the glossy brown gravy poured tableside over a thicket of fries in a version of poutine that wouldn’t embarrass Canadians. The same fries that are served in the poutine and alongside the sandwiches stand on their own when tossed in a spice mix featuring ground Viennese malt. Like nutritional yeast for beer geeks, the malt is also dusted on the burgers’ brioche buns after they’re brushed with hops-infused brown butter.
All the bread used to be made in house, but the work is now outsourced to a local bakery (Duffy, who admits he hasn’t spent much time at the Crafthouse recently, forgets which). The tasty, pale blonde pretzel sticks, served with a trio of dipping sauces, are next. Conversations with the operating partners convey the feeling of a restaurant in flux, but hoping to turn a corner. There have been staffing challenges — including three general managers in six months — and spatial ones. Said Duffy: “Sixty people in any other restaurant would look full.”
But changes are afoot: Collaborative dinners, tap takeovers, a reinvigorated happy hour scene, a new GM in Krista Atkinson, a sommelier-in-training and certified cicerone who also happens to be married to head chef Theo Atkinson. Atkinson has just slimmed down the menu for summer, but the list is still fairly robust — and occasionally exceeded my expectations.
Shaved thin, roasted pork shoulder loaded into a jus-drenched Cacia’s roll has all the garlicky, herbal savor of its porchetta inspiration, while the fried chicken sandwich is all moist thigh meat and golden panko jacket. Duffy’s crew knows its way around a smoker, too, whether for imbuing fennel bulbs with applewood-and-hickory perfume for a crunchy slaw or cooking a 36-spice-rubbed brisket to tenderness.
A brisket/chuck blend from Chicago’s Allen Bros. butchers gives a meaty, agreeably greasy foundation for the burger, of which there are five styles plus a build-your-own option. I’d recommend keeping it simple instead of opting for an overwrought affair like the Gucci, in which the tasty beef endures the weight of wrinkly roasted long hots and Shishitos, smoked Mexican chiles, goopy brie, undercooked ‘tequila-soaked’ onions and fiery ‘Hot Spain drizzle,’ a tribute to spice-loving partner Spain that sounds like a PornHub keyword search.
There are plenty of groans to go around when it comes to verbiage. A burger isn’t stuffed but Stufz, and everything from wings to crostini to butternut squash are Duffified, which is both the name of the spice blend Duffy sells online and the chef’s lifestyle mantra that’s “about going above and beyond.” Currently, there are nearly 3000 Instagram posts hashtagged ‘Duffified’ out there, so maybe he’s onto the next Dianetics.
In the meantime, I’ll take my Hot Spain on the Duffified wings; their meatiness and the robust, shiny, orange-red sauce helping make up for the fact they weren’t especially crispy. Ask for them well done and skip the other wings, which are smoked, salt-and-peppered, sauce-less and bland. The Masha pizza is another suspect creation, featuring shrimp and backfin crabmeat sunk into beer cheese cement and blasted with Old Bay, an affront to seafood and pizza and Maryland. Other whiffs were less egregious: The flat-in-flavor and runny baked beans; fridge-chilled mozzarella in the Falling Up salad; a thick, undercooked branch of broccoli rabe dropped on the porchetta sandwich.
“It’s my favorite thing on the menu,” the bartender declared as she cleared the remains of that sandwich on a different Saturday night around 6 p.m. With all the customers concentrated on the upper level between the bars, the Crafthouse did feel a little busier. On their way out, some customers dropped business cards in a bowl for the chance to win a free happy hour, taking advantage of what seemed like a quaint promotion in the social media age.
“It’s old-school but it works,” says Duffy, who has 13 happy hours booked this week. “Everybody wins.”
FLYING FISH CRAFTHOUSE
1 Quaker – Good*
@ffcrafthouse / @ffcrafthouse/ ffcrafthouse
1363 N. 31st St., 215-701-4545
Kitchen Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 12 to 11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m Sunday.; Bar open through 11 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, through 12 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Executive Chef: Theo Atkinson
Owners: Brian Duffy, Sean McGovern, Dana Spain
General Manager: Krista Atkinson
Pastry Chef: Gabby Anderson
Line Cook: Francheska Cotto
Servers: Katie Harris, Colleen Duffy, Amanda George
Bartenders: Brian Felicia, Bridgette McDevit