by Tom Gogola
Pub-grub … bar bites … tavern trayf … There are only so many ways to generalize about the eats you’ll find at your typical beer joint.
There’s nothing wrong with pulling up to the stool at Dino’s Dive to be greeted with a Bud and a choice from the usuals: Burgers and wings, potato skins gloopy with the cheddar, the mozzarella-marinara dippity-doo-dah routine, maybe some stuffed mushrooms or a cuppa that greasy turkey soup. You know the score.
Well, Mill Valley Beerworks gives the slip to those saloon-slop conventions. It’s a low-lit and sleekly pub-like place on the quieter end of Throckmorton Avenue in Mill Valley, that splits the difference between pleasuring a haute-hops scene and embracing Marin County’s convivial kickback sensibility.
There’s a burger on the menu, but I have a feeling that Beerworks doesn’t necessarily want you to order it. See, the Beerworks bacon-cheeseburger is going to set you back $18—pricey!—and represents the only gesture in the direction of pub-grub.
Oh, it’s pleasing, don’t get me wrong. There’s a slab of bacon to chew on, a sharp slather of aioli dressing and a pleasantly greasy brioche bun. Order the burger and you’ll be hard-pressed to work through half the fries in front of you. Especially after you’ve just taken a tour through half the items on the small-plates menu—which are anything but small.
Let’s just dive right in. A crisp, cool salad, the Little Gem Caesar ($12), features romaine fronds and thin ribbons of kale and romaine in a toss brought to crunchy pleasure with seasoned breadcrumbs. This was shareable for two and with a slightly redolent backbite of anchovy, bespeaking Caesarian authenticity.
Then on to a wooden bowl of wee mussels brimming in a fennel and garlic broth ($12). The mussels were firm, plump and clean—nary a grain of sand or off-flavor bivalve in the mix—and the rich, slippery broth was made for slurping, spooning or otherwise sopping with hearty hunks of levain toast. A classic.
If you had to pick a small-plate comparison dish with which to compare the burger, it would be the maitake mushroom toast ($14). It’s a signature item, a heap of thinly sliced, char-flavored mushrooms over toast with some ricotta and beet greens. It’s meaty like the burger, yet suitable for vegetarians.
And then there was the burrata. The burrata ($10) is an oozy dollop of made-from-mozzarella soft cheese, here served with coins of marinated beet root, red quinoa, and sesame and poppy seeds. The numerously noncompeting textures and flavors conspired to win this dish the most points for complexity.
Off the mains, we had to try the halibut. A little pricey at $28, given the diminutive filet, an iron-shaped offering roasted to golden-brown goodness and served over shelling beans and heirloom tidbits of broccoli di cicco.
There’s a starters menu at Beerworks—and, no, you aren’t going to be able to order fries and be done with it. Try a couple of cheese choices ($7 each). The Wabash Cannonball was a soft, round wad of goat cheese served with peach jam. The cheese was rich without being overly goaty. The Smokey Blue, from Rogue Creamery in Oregon, was the standout choice between the two—smoked over hazelnuts and served with a half fig.
Beerworks is basically a sister restaurant of the new Fort Point Beer Company, founded in 2014 in San Francisco by some young cats, and the menu offers options from the house selection and from guest brewers. Two of the owners had previously opened Beerworks in 2010.
The four-beer sampler for $12 is a good deal and better still for Beerworks’ restraint in the department of suggested “beer pairings.” That’s kind of a twee gesture that has no place in a pub, even a gastro-pub like Beerworks.
I stayed with the house brews. Fort Point’s KSA holds up the light-and-satisfying-ale end of the deal. The St. Francis Belgian offered subtle and nearly metaphysical undertones of molasses, as advertised; by contrast, the Treble Hook rye was sharp and pointed—like its namesake says it ought to be. Beerworks Black was stout-like and delivered on promised notes of toffee.
You’re wondering about service and the general vibe here? My guest and I arrived at Beerworks at 8pm and perched at a two-top in the front window, where we could overlook Throckmorton and the Beerworks crowd. There was a full house when we got there, and a full house when we waddled out around 10:30pm.
And it was mostly the same full house. In that time I saw a total of one group exit the restaurant. Our waitress confirmed that Beerworks has staying power in spades. You’ll want to linger.
The night wore on and we lingered over port and dessert. A dark chocolate torte ($8) for me; for my friend, a dollop of elderflower mascarpone ($8) over sliced melon, rendered sushi-roll style. The mild, creamy mascarpone only served to remind us of the burrata.
We lingered some more and on the way out the door, the crew fired up some music: Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs singing that great song—you know the one.
It was the perfect accompaniment to dance out the door to as we spilled into the cool Marin night: “Wait!! They don’t love you like I do! Wait!!”
Mill Valley Beerworks, 173 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley; 415/888-8218; millvalleybeerworks.com.