If I were to pick a dog that would epitomize Taphouse, it would have to be a pug puppy – bug-eyed, wobbly and, in general, not quite right … yet completely irresistible. This restaurant is about as balanced, and intriguing, as a tortured high school drama-club kid.
Occupying a storefront in the fifty or so square feet that comprises “downtown Hampton” (don’t even get me started on that “Urban Waterfront Village” moniker the city is trying to peddle), Taphouse competes for consumers with a few (as in four) other restaurants, a couple boutiques and the quirky retro reseller, Modernlux. No matter that “downtown” isn’t much of a destination, because Taphouse itself is worth the trip.
The Taphouse in Hampton is an off-shoot of Norfolk’s restaurant of the same name, but the Hampton incarnation takes all the good parts of the Norfolk restaurant (the beer list, the creative menu) and leaves behind the bad (Norfolk’s restaurant’s serious need of a good deep cleaning and painfully lethargic service).
As the name would imply, beer is front and center at Taphouse. It’s a (very) welcome respite from the area restaurants that list Sam Adams, Blue Moon and Shiner Bock as “imports.” With 40 beers – mostly microbrews and Belgians – on tap, and another 120 in bottles, Taphouse outclasses most of the beer-serving institutions in the country (not county – country, like the whole U.S.). I mean, they’ve got Chimay Tripel on tap. Wha? In Hampton, Virginia? They can’t seem to figure out how to spell “tripel,” but who cares, right? Their beer menu is so extensive that they’ve even got representatives of the horrid Flemish red ales on it. Not my cup of tea, but the fact they even appear shows the dedication the restaurant’s proprietors have for beer (the menu accurately, and kindly, points out that these are “acquired tastes”).
Now, not only do they have a serious beer list with great local options (Charlotteville’s Starr Hill’s “The Love,” to name one standout), but most pints are priced around $4.50. See, I got used to paying $8 for Sam Adams in D.C., so a $4.50 pint of a good microbrew is nothing short of a diner-sized slice of heaven. And if you go on Mondays, that $4.50 pint is a miracleofthefreemarket $2.50. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord and pass the Founder’s Red Rye Ale!
One might think the Taphouse would be happy to serve beer and nothing more. After all, even if you take atmosphere (and every other variable) out of the equation, no establishment in Hampton Roads that I know of even comes close in terms of beer selection. And – who knows – maybe Taphouse would’ve been happy being nothing but a beer-serving bar … except for the fact it’s an alcohol-serving business in one of the fifty United States, and that means it’s subject to strange and arbitrary laws that serve no apparent purpose. To wit: in Virginia, you are not allowed to operate a stand-alone bar. Fifty-five percent of your business has to come from food sales. Why is that, you ask? Because no one has ever, in the history of restaurants, become woefully intoxicated at a place that sold French fries to go along with double-pour martinis ever since dinosaurs, which was, like, six thousand years ago. Because Virginia is just that committed to the propagation of Tidewater cuisine? Because there are simply no bar-room brawls at places that serve hush puppies? Or maybe because knowledgeable consumers refuse to buy one more drink unless there’s a high-priced entrée in their future? No, it’s just that once upon a time some weird prohibitionist had a profoundly bad idea, and now we have a stupid law because lawmakers are too afraid of the evangelicals to do anything about it. So, fifty-five percent it is.
Anyway … Taphouse sells food. By law. They could’ve taken the easy way out. You know, do the bare minimum by serving flat, frozen burger patties, jalapeño poppers and cheese sticks. But, no! Taphouse rears back and shoots for the moon, and I give them real credit for effort. The end results are overall great, if somewhat mixed.
When Taphouse’s kitchen shines, it really shines. One night’s special was a spectacular flame-grilled salmon on parmesan grits with bacon-rich collards. Not a solitary grit went back to the kitchen on that plate. The Asian-inspired potato-crusted crabcake, served with ginger-tinged vegetables and sesame rice, is another faultless entrée. The menu boasts they serve the “best, most generous crabcake in town” with their crabcake sandwich. Them’s strong words in these parts, and I was skeptical. Yet, my sandwich showed up with a plump, well-spiced crabcake that had virtually no detectable filler. I haven’t had enough crabcakes in the area to know if Taphouse’s is the absolute best, but I can say it’s definitely a contender – and far and away worth the $13 I paid for it. Even the restaurant’s “chili,” which contains such oddities as corn and celery (not to mention cookoff-disqualifying beans – two types of them no less), is pretty tasty.
But just as soon as I can say, “I love this place,” the kitchen drops a bomb or two. The Chesapeake crab burger comes with a large dollop of bland “queso” hiding a few small pieces of crab. Other than saturated fat, I can’t tell what it possibly adds to the otherwise excellent burger. On one visit, the peppercorn-studded “Ten Dollar Meatloaf” shows up really needing a good shot of salt (which there is none of on the tables). The breakfast burrito, which is served hot, comes stuffed with lettuce, which means the lettuce is soft, wilted and pretty unappetizing by the time the dish hits the table. They serve a breakfast burger with a scrambled egg on top, but when I asked if I could have the egg fried instead, I was told the kitchen couldn’t fry eggs. Come again? (In a classic TMI moment, the waitress explained the kitchen was making large batches of scrambled eggs to serve with the brunch dishes, and they couldn’t break away to fry an egg.)** Another brunch experience yielded cold home fries all around. Was the heat lamp broken? Or were these, too, made en masse and stuck off to the side?
And as soon as I’m ready to write the place off, I go back, and the meatloaf comes out perfect, leaving a dining companion all but licking the plate clean. I was leery of ordering seared sashimi at a bar in downtown Hampton, but I did it anyway, and to my great surprise: it was excellent. Nice quality fish, perfectly seared around the edges, served with a great “ginger jam” and decorative wasabi cream. Score. The “Atlantic” spin on jambalaya with chunks of tuna? Another win. And the $1 bloody marys during the Sunday brunch, which taste like much, much more than a buck, are almost enough to make you forget about the cold home fries.
Even though the food may be inconsistent at times, the service is unfailingly effervescent. On one visit, the blonde waitress cheerfully offered up the detail that the beer I had ordered had gotten her “into trouble” the night before. On another, a dark-haired emo waitress stopped by my table every few minutes to toss an endearing, if incongruous, “honey,” “dear” or “sweetie” my way. Even when the kitchen ground to a standstill because of the crowd that showed up for the Eileen Jewel show, the waitstaff rallied, showing up at our table every five minutes to see if we needed more beers, and even to refill waters. And with that kind of attention, it’s really, really hard to stay upset at the kitchen for taking so long.
Taphouse’s upper floor has a great roadhouse/Austin City Limits look, but it seems to be generally closed off unless there’s a band. Downstairs, the wood bar takes center stage (as it should – it’s a beer joint, after all), but the 50s-diner-style stools and their worn-away vinyl covers really need to find new home.* Maybe Mondernlux could help. And the swinging glass front door? So Walgreens.
The bottom line is if you’re looking for good beer in a place that will make you feel as welcome as if you’ve been showing up nightly for years, Taphouse is your place. You can generally expect a great meal worth more than you pay for it. And if that doesn’t happen, well, you can chalk it up to bad luck, order another beer and strike up a conversation with the bartender. At the end of it all, you’ll be glad you went.
Like I said, Taphouse is a so-goofy-it’s-cute kind of place. Even when it pees on your shoe, it’s hard to be angry for more than a minute or two. For all its quirks, I hope Taphouse never changes.
Address: 17 East Queens Way, Hampton
Phone: (757) 224-5829
Website: I found this page for the Norfolk restaurant
Here’s what the folks at Urbanspoon say:
*UPDATE: On my last visit, I noticed Taphouse had indeed put spiffy new covers on their barstools.
**UPDATE [Feb. 2012]: I had brunch recently at Taphouse, and I’m happy to report they’re frying eggs now. Unfortunately, the yolk of one of my eggs was cooked solidly through. Oh well, you win some, you lose some. (The rest of the dish was typical Taphouse awesomeness)