First Impressions visits dining spots in the region that are new or have undergone recent transitions. Have a candidate for First Impressions? Email us at email@example.com .
Let’s start with a bit of history. There’s a plaque at Stirling Bridge in central Scotland commemorating a famous battle fought there in the 13th century. The plaque reads, “In early September 1297 a mighty army arrived in (the town of) Stirling to put down Scots resistance to English rule. The Scots allowed nearly half the invaders to advance across the narrow bridge over the (River) Forth. Then William Wallace and the Scots swept forward to achieve a brilliant victory over a far-superior force.”
Hold that thought. Now, segueing to local history: The family-owned Brother Oliver’s opened in 1980 in Carmichael, and today holds a place on the list of our area’s legendary restaurants of past decades, joining the likes of the Coral Reef, Neptune’s Table, the Ram, Capitol Tamale, Hong Kong Cafe, Zombie Hut, Johnson's Del Prado and Robert's Fish Grotto.
Brother Oliver’s closed in 2008, and Stirling Bridges gastropub recently moved in. The interior and menu are new, of course, but what hasn’t changed is the Tudor-style, wood-shingled exterior of the building, an interesting example of an architectural style we’ve dubbed Sacramento Memory.
“(The Stirling name) started off as a bit of a joke,” explained co-owner Andy Wylie, a Scotsman who co-owned Streets of London pub on downtown J Street from 1998 to 2011. “I was sitting with my two partners; one is British and the other is American with a British heritage. We were trying to decide what to name it, and I said, ‘How about Stirling Bridges, the battle where the Scots beat the British...’ I expected them to laugh it off, but they said, ‘Great idea.’”
Menu: The usual suspects are there — Prince Edward Island mussels, Scotch eggs, house-made potato chips, fish ’n’ chips, bangers ’n’ mash. However, the menu goes beyond the expected to include some surprising dishes that reflect eclectic and trending tastes. Chicken and waffles, for instance, migrated to the South after originating in 1938 at the Wells Supper Club in Harlem. Other seemingly displaced items: roasted shishito peppers, orzo and quinoa salad with mint leaves, Asian coleslaw, seven versions of thin-crust pizza.
How did a Cuban sandwich end up on a British-style gastropub menu?
“When I designed the menu, I wanted to put a twist on it and make it fun and interesting,” said chef Shayne Myers. “Sure, we serve traditional English food, but why not a Cuban sandwich, too? It’s a labor of love.”
Price point: Nothing’s going to break the bank. Starters, soups and salads range from $5 to $13; sandwiches and burgers, $10 to $13; entrees, $10 to $15; pizza, $11 to $17.
Ambiance: The beautifully executed renovation is spacious and comfortable, echoing the vibe of pubs found throughout the United Kingdom. Framed art and rugby shirts, signage that makes you pause — “Haud yer weesht (“shut up”) an’ get oan wae it” — TVs tuned to soccer games, pool table, darts. One wall near the full bar is a British-themed mural. Off to the side is the wood-paneled Churchill Room, with fireplace, available for reservation. “It looks like the library in an English manor house,” said one lunch pal. An unusual touch is the decorative river rocks stacked behind metal wire, made to conjure the feeling of being underneath a stone bridge.
Drinks: A dozen domestic and imported draft beers and 42 in bottles join an array of Scotch whiskys and Irish whiskeys at the handsome bar.
Service: Our server was informed, proficient, fast and patient, with a good sense of humor. Everything arrived at the table appropriately hot.
First impressions: The warm, crunchy, mildly seasoned “potato crisps” were a hit, as were the sea-salted hand-rolled pretzel with plain and raspberry whole-grain mustards (“Perfect crunch,” was the consensus); Scotch eggs (hard-boiled eggs encased in pork sausage and a light jacket of breadcrumbs, deep-fried and cut into halves); fish ’n’ chips (moist chunks of cod in crisp, non-oily casing); and bangers (well-seasoned sausages) and house-made mashed potatoes with dark Guinness-based gravy.
On the other hand, the Guinness- and Irish whiskey-based broth for the Irish onion soup was salty and way too gravylike, crowded with too many onion slices and not enough Swiss cheese. A “barbecue pizza” topped with crumbled bacon, bell pepper, caramelized onion, barbecue sauce and mozzarella was salty, the thin crust floppy (“It missed the mark,” said a lunch pal).
Any “daily special” is an opportunity for a restaurant to shine with an outstanding dish. Not so the other day. Helping save the thinly sliced, well-done, dry roast beef on the open-face sandwich was flavorful gravy, which also added depth to the first-rate mashed potatoes.
Try it if: You enjoy a pint and like pub grub, but want to add something different to the mix.
Forget it if: You’re stuck on fast-food joints, in the mood for formal dining, or don’t want to hassle with the frenetic traffic along potholed Madison and Manzanita avenues and untenable Sunrise Boulevard.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe