Thursday November 8, 2012

LANESBOROUGH -- For a popular family restaurant waving the all-American "beer and wings" flag, the Old Forge Restaurant is a rare dot on the landscape.

I’d been to the Forge before last Sunday evening, but was still struck by its rows of draught spouts and chalkboards scribbled with lists of the current options.

More than that, though, I noticed how crowded the place was. The bar was stuffed two or three bodies deep and our party of two had to wait 10 minutes for a table. It was impressive to see a restaurant brimming with life on a November school night.

The menu is one that could break either way in the sense that simple-sounding items like burgers, nachos, and wings can be prepared with varying degrees of success and nuance.

The Forge breaks the right way across the board.

Our first dish, four potato skins with bacon and cheese for $7.75, was exactly right for a cold evening. This satisfying appetizer, also available salsa and cheese or Mexican style toppings, is ideal for sharing.

There were plenty of other options that sounded equally appealing, such as French onion soup, "Lanesboro nachos for 2," and various shrimp preparations.

The Forge’s wings are a perennial favorite, associated with the place as much as craft beer, and for good reason. First off, they’re really big. Larger than any I can recall seeing, a dozen bear enough meat to constitute a main course. Second, the texture is spot-on.

Finally, the various flavors are all worth trying.

For those so inclined, selecting the right beer to match your meal is half of the fun. I was fortunate enough to be joined by the manager of a liquor store that prides itself on stocking an array of craft beer, who led me to a delicious German Hefeweizen.

Otherwise I’d have been lost amidst an intimidating selection of domestic, imported, craft, and seasonal pints and bottles.

Lest it be forgotten, I feel obligated to mention again how jam-packed the scene at the Old Forge was. This will be a deal maker or breaker for some.

To get to our table in the dining room we had to muscle through the narrow bar area with the tenacity of teenagers squeezing up to the front row of a stadium concert.

I found the celebratory energy and rumble of voices invigorating. From the perch of a corner table I watched a parade of teenage heads peeking out of enormous team hoodies, multiple generations of football and beer fans sallied up to the bar, and an endless stream of fried and melted platefuls coming from the kitchen in the hands of an efficient staff.

An unfortunate result of this is a frequent small traffic jam clogging the Forge’s bottleneck between the dining rooms, and along the length of the bar. This demands patience and persistence when seeking the restroom or, as we had to do when walking to and from our table, competition with waitresses bearing large trays of food to make it through the passageway connection the back room and bar.

To the right person this buzzing atmosphere is part of the fun of coming to such a joint.

It did little to hinder quick and amicable service, largely a result of well-trained servers, clearly used to the crowd, zipping around one another quickly and precisely.

For those seeking a quiet, unhurried evening this will present a significant obstacle, but it didn’t bother me at all.