By Eric Ruth
Ever since the world took a collective belly flop into the still-fragrant swamp of the Great Recession, most of us have become accustomed to doing more with less (except, of course, the rats who skunked us in the first place).
Most others faced a new fiscal reality: Households tightened their belts. Businesses battened their balance sheets. Even politicians, never much inclined to budgetary restraint, dabbled halfheartedly in frugal sentiments (at least as much as their re-election hopes would allow).
Luckily, our dear representatives at Leg Hall can recess to a place just down the street, where the lessons of prudent stewardship are deeply ingrained and ready to be taken to heart. So let’s hope they’re learning a thing or three during those let’s-make-a-deal lunch sessions over at 33 West Ale House and Grill:
- Lesson 1: It is possible to build truly great things from modest foundations.
- Lesson 2: The way to earn the respect of constituents is to show constituents respect.
- Lesson 3: A thing of value can be leveraged into existence using just three humble assets: passion, integrity and commitment.
So pay attention as owner Brandon Pelton, Chef Ryan and the whole crew of this Loockerman Street gem show how it’s done: Take a modest storefront on an ever-hopeful (but perpetually downtrodden) downtown Dover street.
Add just enough primping to make things seem modern, airy, cheery. Leave that broad front window open to the street, adding some light and life to the front room — but be sure to leave that cozy back-of-the-house bar in perpetual semi-gloom, so as to suit our occasional need for intimacy.
Then, take every pub-grub dish you’ve ever heard of and transform each one into an object of enduring desire — lifting their pedigree with well-chosen ingredients, and ensuring their excellence through careful execution. Crown it all with a well-chosen craft brew selection and add a pinch of culinary impishness.
It’s a sure-fire recipe for exactly the kind of food that makes 33 West the best value proposition in Dover, and arguably the most consistent people-pleaser to be found in a county not generally known for culinary pleasantries (the fried wings at Spence’s Bazaar excepted, of course). Yes, the tables are too tiny for any sort of spreadsheet-spreading, and contemporary niceties such as Wi-Fi and meeting spaces are nonexistent. And yes, you may even grumble at first that the lunch menu leans too heavily on salad-and-sandwich predictabilities — until your meal arrives, accompanied by a cheery word from your down-home-friendly server.
That’s when you realize: 33 West is never content to let a burger be just a burger, or a salad be any old salad. Dishes that can be found everywhere are done here better than practically anywhere: Fried brussels sprouts ($10) are a revelation of crispy-sweet goodness, flecked with salty-sweet notes of maple bacon, apples and balsamic glaze. Three-cheese crab dip with pita points ($13) is surely decadent enough to qualify as a controlled substance in several states. A seemingly outlandish cross-cultural mashup of Korea, Japan and the Deep South uplifts the arugula salad into a new realm of international harmony, thanks to glazed nuggets of pork belly and perfectly deep-fried slices of green tomato ($13).
Throughout, Chef Ryan shows a steady sense for counterpoint and balance, never letting his creative impulses wander so far that cohesion is lost. Lunch sandwiches consistently find that elusive sweet spot of composition — just enough herb-and-garlic mayonnaise on the smoked salmon club topped with bacon ($10). Just the right bready crunch on the Jerk Cuban ($13), layered with ham, pork, pickles, Swiss and mustard. Just the right proportions of avocado, bacon and provolone make this Bacon Avocado Melt ($10) a singular statement with wholesome appeal.
“Wholesomeness” was probably not the chef’s primary motivation when he concocted what very well may be the best burger between Llangolen and Lewes: The “Jam & Egg” ($12), featuring a perfectly grilled half-pound angus patty, bacon, fig jam, Sriracha mayo and cheddar, crowned with a frazzled-around-the-edge sunny-side-up egg and a pretzel roll.
It’s one of those creations that simultaneously seems just a bit over the top, yet somehow thoroughly down to earth — like a friend who’s a bit sassy and spunky, but so affable and easy to like. It is, in many ways, very much like 33 West itself.
33 WEST ALE HOUSE AND GRILL
33 W. Loockerman St., Dover
• Food and service: Affable servers and easygoing attitudes make it easy to sit back and enjoy the impeccably executed and nicely priced menu, full of ordinary-sounding dishes that are given an extraordinarily modern appeal by Chef Ryan.
• Ambiance/elegance factor: Smart, restrained design touches give some modern flair to the tidy, spare dining room looking over Loockerman Street, though some may grumble over these itsy-bitsy tables. Gravitate toward the cozy, shadowy bar area in the back for more seclusion. (Lunch entrees $8-$15)
• Catering: Available.
• Takeout/Delivery: Available
• Private tables: Not available.
• Meeting-ready? No.
• Perfect for: Small, casual get-togethers for bargain-rate upscale pub-grub.
• Tech-readiness: No wi-fi.
• Allergy-friendly? Ingredients are well-detailed, though allergy-prone customers would be wise to inquire.
• The Buzz: In a town known more for fast food, there’s a nice hometown spirit here, a feeling of community and casual charm. Be sure to check out the beer selections.