As a food columnist, I generally stay away from chain restaurants. It's not that I don't think they have anything to offer or that the food can't be any good—after all, they became a chain for a reason. But I prefer to spotlight local establishments because if citizens don't support locally owned bars, pubs and restaurants, we will be left with nothing but the chains. It's the local joints that give a city character. But there's room for both, and it's all about variety.
It was variety that took me to a chain restaurant this week as I searched for the most appealing happy hour. The variety of beers at Fox and Hound on Chesterfield Airport Road is impressive: 36 beers on tap and 26 bottled beers. True, the International Tap House has 40 beers on tap and hundreds of bottled beers, but they don't offer food. Happy hour on an empty stomach is bad mojo. The call of Tuesday's special—$2.50 for drafts of imported and specialty beers and $2 for domestic drafts—drew me to the Fox and Hound.
The first thing that struck me as I entered were the two ginormous televisions above the bar. They measure a whopping 10 feet by 6 feet and were installed just last month.They were flanked to the sides and along the walls by eight 60-inch TVs. The second thing I noticed was how the richly finished wood everywhere made the place look handsome. But I wasn't here to admire the woodwork, so I headed to the bar where beer taps were lined up like so many soldiers waiting to be called to action.
In any establishment with such a large variety of beers, you hope for a knowledgeable bartender. That's what I got with Chris Aslinger. As I asked questions about the selections from the beer menu, he explained the dominant characteristics of each beer and steered me away from the ones that wouldn't appeal to me. The brand that Aslinger said tasted like Fruit Loops, for example, was out since overly fruity beers are not for me.
I chose the Red Fox Amber Ale, which is made by Anheuser Busch exclusively for Fox and Hound. The amber color was clear and it came with a small head. The aroma was nice: malt and some subtle fruit in the background. The taste was moderately fruity with a hoppy finish and a mild bitter kick. It's not bad for Anheuser Busch, but I wouldn't seek it out.
Aslinger said the restaraurant's most popular beers are the Newcastle Brown Ale and Guinness Black and Tan. Several wheat beers, including Blue Moon, are also popular thanks to the weekly special "Wicked Wheat Wednesdays."
When he told me about New Belgium 1554, my curiosity was piqued.
“It tastes like espresso,” Aslinger said. “It has a pretty strong cult following."
I ordered one and took a look at the food. While there are no food specials during happy hour—except on Mondays when they feature 10 wings for $5 all day—there were many reasonable choices. Endless chips and fresh salsa cost only about $4. But I opted instead for The Black Forest sandwich: grilled turkey and applewood bacon on a Bavarian pretzel roll, topped with Monterey Jack cheese, lettuce, tomato and honey mustard.
Aslinger assured me the sandwich was not only his favorite, but a big seller, and I wasn't disappointed. The unique Bavarian pretzel roll—sans salt—was soft and delicious. Each ingredient got its chance as the star, coming to the front of the palate and then making way for the next player. I'd order another one anytime.
But the New Belgium 1554 beer was truly special. It was very dark brown, almost black, with a frothy head. The aroma was malty and sweet, with chocolate, coffee and dark, spicy fruit lurking in the background. The flavor was as complex as the aroma. The chocolate and coffee notes were nicely balanced with a slightly roasted taste and a hint of fruit. The finish was pleasantly bitter, but soft. It went down like velvet. With many chocolatey beers, after one, you don't want another. This one you could continue drinking. I would go out of my way for this beer.
The Fox and Hound has a different happy hour every day from 4 to 7 p.m. There's also a weekday, late-night happy hour from 10 p.m. to close. You can join the All Star Brew Club and accumulate points that lead to benefits and discounts, too.
The 11th commandment is Thou Shalt Not Assume. Sometimes, a chain restaurant is a good thing.