by Len Lear
Lafayette Hill resident Erin Wallace, 36, is definitely a quintessential American success story. She makes it rain everywhere she goes. Growing up in modest circumstances in Baltimore, Erin came to Philadelphia to attend Moore College of Art & Design, and like so many college students, she wound up waitressing to help pay for tuition.
After waitressing at Cherry Street Tavern downtown for a while, Erin was asked to tend bar and do just about everything else that needed to be done. And even after graduating from Moore, she could not pull herself away from the restaurant/bar scene, which by then was in her blood (along with the red and white blood cells, of course).
After a few more years, the enterprising, resourceful and entrepreneurial art school grad struck out on her own, opening the Old Eagle Tavern, another beer bar, in Manayunk 11 years ago. Success there led to the opening of Devil’s Den in South Philly six years ago, which has become one of the most popular gastropubs south of South Street.
Then last fall, Erin jumped out of a plane without a parachute (so to speak), opening the Barren Hill Inn at the site of the former General Lafayette Inn, which closed in the fall of 2010 in the 282-year-old building and had been (excuse the pun) barren ever since. The old bones definitely needed some rehab work, if not major surgery.
Erin and her husband took money out of their other two restaurants to resuscitate “General Lafayette,” as well as other loans and personal savings. “We put in about $1.5 million for everything,” said Wallace, so this spin of the roulette wheel cannot afford to come up double zeroes.
The new name of the restaurant was taken from the Battle of Barren Hill, a relatively minor Revolutionary War engagement in May of 1778, along Ridge Road which ended with a successful American retreat. “We did not want to keep the General Lafayette Inn name because everything here is new,” said Erin, “and my husband is a history buff. The Devil’s Den name, in fact, was taken from the Battle of Gettysburg.”
Erin and her team have maintained the original structure completely, keeping the steel and copper finishes intact while renovating the interior and exterior. The colors are subdued, and the walls are bare, which has prompted some complaints from internet reviewers, but it seems appropriate to me for a building that is almost three centuries old. The original dark wood beams, paneling and wainscoting have clearly been revived, and the twin oak bars, where you can see the alchemy of beers being made through picture windows, are kinetic with beer and sports buffs.
Speaking of beer, Erin made a real coup by hiring brewmaster Scott Morrison, who has a national reputation as a seven-time winner at the Great American Beer Festival. Formerly with Dock Street Brewing Company, the Belgian-influenced brewer oversees a seven-barrel system that turns out more than a dozen freshly made beers each week. Since there are 30 taps, some of them also turn out drafts from other local breweries. (By the way, there is also a long-time restaurateur on the Main Line named Scott Morrison. He is co-owner of Nectar in Berwyn with Michael Wei, owner of Cin Cin.)
Morrison is constantly creating new beers. “It’s really a brewer’s dream,” he said recently, “as you’re always innovating rather than brewing the same standards and seasonals … We won’t be doing different beers just to be different; the beers will still be interesting but accessible.”
Regarding the food and drink at Barren Hill, I cannot say we were as on fire as Moses when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the law, but pretty close. Some of chef Paul Trowbridge’s dishes literally gave us a frisson of excitement, such as the corn and cheese empanadas with chipotle mayo ($5), the spicy hummus with grilled pita and divine pickled veggies ($7) and phenomenal iceberg wedge with tomato wedges, crispy onions, bacon and blue cheese dressing ($8). The kitchen made lightning strike with the short rib quesadilla with fried onions, cheese and chili sauce, very reasonably priced at $7.50. And the fried Buffalo chicken sandwich with blue cheese dressing and fiery sauce was locked and loaded ($9). This is terrific beer food. And pastry chef Melissa Stout-Griener makes an amazing dough-nation to dessert lovers with her fruit tarts, vanilla cheesecake and chocolate chip cookies.
There are lots of great beers, of course. (At Happy Hour all draft beers are half-price.) Our favorites were the BH Berliner wheat beer with raspberry syrup (2.8 percent alcohol, $5) and the Wild Onion pumpkin ale (5.4 percent alcohol, $5).
It is hard not to compare Barren Hill to Brittingham’s, another brewpub right next door to Barren Hill that was also closed for several years, which opened right after Barren Hill and which has a similar menu and profusion of beer choices. We prefer Barren Hill because, based on our admittedly limited experience, the food, beer and service are simply better. All three dining rooms at Brittinghams have bars and are loud enough to give you an eargasm. The main room at Barren Hill is also very loud, but the other dining rooms are not.
While having such a good time there, I thought of a quote I once read from a brilliant novelist named Christopher Morley who once lived in Philadelphia: “Heaven is not built for pallid saints but for raging and risible men.” And if your server is Yolanda Heggins, your evening might just be a risible tour de force. Yolanda, a resident of Jenkintown whose aspiration is to be a nurse, could probably cure some patients with her personality alone.
For more information, call 484-344-5438 or visit www.barrenhilltavern.com.