Samuel Johnson famously said, “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced, as by a good tavern ...”
John Walsh, the dedicated host of America's Most Wanted, expressed a similar sentiment in his blog: “It is a truism that the bar, the pub, the tavern, the alehouse, the local taproom, the watering-hole and the seedy dive collectively exert an influence over human culture that cannot wholly be explained by the lure of alcohol. We are drawn to the lights, the painted sign, the hubbub and (back then) the smoke, like pilgrims to a shrine, to be welcomed into a communion of souls; flushed, exultant, temporarily absolved of our sins.”
The Drake Tavern in Jenkintown is living proof of what Johnson and Walsh so lovingly extolled. The 60-seat dining room was vibrant with life and good cheer. The noise level can be high, but it’s a happy noise.
The full service bar sports 10 logo-branded taps, and offers over 30 bottled beers and ales. Compared to some of today’s pubs, this is not a huge selection (think the Eulogy Belgian Tavern with over 100 brews), but it is more than adequate.
From its beginning seven years ago, the Drake Tavern has also been about outstanding food. Executive chef and owner Zac Hulayev, who was instrumental in making the former Alexander’s restaurant (now the Kitchen Bar) a major success, is largely responsible for this. The Drake is our Cheers, and Zac is our Sam.
The food here is a sizable cut above typical tavern fare, yet at tavern prices. The menu is very large, including American classic favorites; a line-up of sandwiches and wraps; entrées like steak, chops and seafood; and “pub specialties” like shepherd’s pie, and fish and chips. Also, the restaurant styles itself as the “master of burgers.”
We started with the Eastern Ocean mussels ($11), which were good, but not great.
On a previous visit, the seared tuna appetizer ($12) was a generous portion of fresh sliced tuna steak encrusted with roasted sesame seeds and black pepper, served wonderfully rare with a side of seaweed salad, wasabi paste, and soy dressing … not quite as good as at a fine Japanese restaurant, but not bad at all.
Twenty other appetizers and salads will satisfy a wide variety of tastes.
I was immediately lured to one of the unusual entries on this month's “specials” menu, the Drake Peking Duck sandwich ($12). I was greatly rewarded with slices of grilled marinated duck breast on a fresh Kaiser roll, enhanced with a crisp fried wonton, scallions and plum sauce, and finished brilliantly with mango chutney and almonds. This juicy, flavorful creation was one of the best sandwiches I have ever had.
On a previous visit to the Drake, the Captain Morgan’s burger ($11) I had tried was also a masterpiece. It is one of five different charcoal-grilled burgers made with a half-pound of Angus beef. The burger was grilled perfectly medium rare, as requested, juicy and amazingly flavorful, with portobello mushrooms, Swiss cheese, crispy fried potato strings and a sublime, homemade Captain Morgan’s sauce. The sauce is a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce that Hulayev said he conceived in a dream, and then spent three months perfecting. Most of us dream of less prosaic things, but we can't discount the results.
If you are wanting a salad, you might want to have the crab cake salad ($13). The crab cake was rich in lump crab with not too much filler. The salad had the usual cast of salad characters, plus roasted peppers, olives and crunchy fried potato strings, with a creamy tartar remoulade dressing, all in all a good value.
Inside the tavern, there is much to catch your eye, including many colored neon beer signs, framed photos of rock stars and Philly sports greats, and several large TVs (all of which were showing the Phillies game Thursday night).
Outside, there is a large patio, part of which is covered and glassed in, from where you can nurse your drink and watch the cars go by on Old York Road.
Overall rating: mmmm (out of 5 m’s) A very “good tavern” that old Sam Johnson would have been happy to frequent.
Location: 304 Old York Road, Jenkintown
Cuisine: American casual
Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads, $6 to $12; burgers, sandwiches and wraps, $7 to $9; entrees, $12 to $20
Credit cards: All major accepted
Alcoholic beverages: full sevice bar.
Special features: Happy hour specials; music on weekends; Oktoberfest extravaganza Sept. 29, which includes a happy hour, pig roast and beer sampling.