When restaurateur Garrett Harker was planning Row 34, there was one thing he didn’t want at the Fort Point oyster bar: cocktails. “I felt like Row 34 needed to breathe a little, and maybe I did as well,” says Harker. “The expectations that people have for a cocktail program at one of our spots dictates the personnel required, the way the team comes together, the way we serve our guests.” What he decided to do, he says, was find out “what happens if you remove that piece.”
To drill down the restaurant’s focus on beer and wine, Harker made Megan Parker-Gray, most recently the assistant manager at Lineage, Row 34’s beer director. With 24 taps, she has earned the beer list raves from beer geeks since last November’s opening. The usual standbys — Samuel Adams or Budweiser — are nowhere in sight.
Choosing a beer at Row 34 can be like reading a David Foster Wallace novel; at first the words on the page are dense. (An Italian Schwarzbier? I thought that was German.) Through much Googling, a customer begins to parse the names of unfamiliar sour and smoked beers from all over Europe and frequent selections from neighboring Trillium Brewing, leading to a few “holy cow” moments. The taps and a single cask are meant to both complement and contrast with a seafood menu starring oysters.
“In the past, the obvious go-to for oysters would be a glass of white wine,” says Skip Bennett, fisherman and founder of Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury. “There’s an oyster renaissance, and there’s also this really amazing thing going on with craft beer. Each beer is dynamic in its own way. Conceptually I like this idea — that it’s a little less obvious than wines.”
Parker-Gray honed her beer skills at Tavern in the Square, where the policy of allowing workers one beer during a shift introduced her to Troegs, Smuttynose, and other craft breweries. “I always say beer is what I spent all my tips on,” she says. For the Row lineup, she pores over distribution lists, pulling out rare selections. “You can really dig deep into little pieces of portfolio and pick something strange and crazy and awesome at the same time.”
Not selling the well-known brands poses some challenges. From a business perspective, Harker admits that “not playing with the big boys” limits access to certain specialty releases. Also, a list of only rare beers might not play well with every customer. “I believe my guests are smart,” says Harker. “You can’t just put ‘tap’ in your name or install 36 draft lines and think your staff doesn’t see through and your guests won’t figure out that you’re not all in.”
To ensure customers get a beer they like, Parker-Gray interacts with guests, pouring many samples until they like something. A group of women who are Eastern Standard regulars came in and requested “the craziest beers on the menu.” They raved about a smoked Gose, called Freigeist Abraxxas, and Hof Ten Dormaal Port Charlotte, a Belgian ale aged in Scotch barrels.
Parker-Gray nailed it on one pour.Gary Dzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GaryDzen.