WHO’S IN CHARGE For 11 years, Gloucester’s Bob Vallis owned and ran one of the city’s landmark establishments, the Blackburn Tavern. Best known for its live entertainment, the Blackburn was a labor of love, said Vallis, but the long days eventually wore him down.
“Once I got into my 50s, I said ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore,’” said Vallis, now 63. “Live entertainment, the crowds, the whole thing really takes its toll on you. You don’t get home until 3 or 4 in the morning, and you’ve got to be back into work at 9. And you do that day after day after day.”
So Vallis sold the tavern and stepped away from the business. Within two months, however, he was regretting the decision. So he set about finding a new location, and ultimately settled on the site of the former Zabaglione Ristorante – an elegant Italian eatery – on Central Street in Ipswich. In October, Vallis unveiled The Brown Dog Food & Spirits.
“This is a little more low-key without the live entertainment. It’s calm,” said Vallis with a laugh. “The people in Ipswich are so nice. And they’ve been very kind to me since I opened up.”
The downtown location — similar to the Blackburn at the corner of Washington and Main streets in Gloucester — reveals Vallis’s affinity for immersing himself in the community.
“I want to give people something where they don’t have to drive very far to get a nice meal,” he said. “This is centrally located, which is perfect for me.”
THE ATMOSPHERE Like Zabaglione, The Brown Dog is cozy and intimate, seating just 53, but with a distinctly tavern feel. Warm reds, moss greens, and wood tones create an inviting environment. Add original artwork, a fireplace, and two leather sofas (ideal for cocktails and appetizers), and it strikes an admirable balance between upscale neighborhood bar and high-end restaurant.
“I was looking for a place that, when people walk in, they feel comfortable, like someone’s living room,” said Vallis. “I want people to feel at home.”
Patrons are greeted by a lively, horseshoe-shaped bar that dominates half the restaurant. Two flat-screen televisions hover, which I feel detracts slightly from the pub’s communal quality.
Since we arrived early, my wife, Lauri, and I had our choice of tables, and selected a high-top by the large front windows, as far away from the TVs as possible. Erica, our waitress, was a delight, knowledgeable and personable while allowing us to set the pace.
ON THE MENU According to Vallis, the offerings at The Brown Dog mirror the menu he developed over a decade at the Blackburn Tavern.
“We serve traditional American comfort food, good basic American fare like grilled salmon, baked haddock, baked stuffed shrimp,” he said. “The menu is nothing extravagant. I want people to feel comfortable. That’s the whole concept of the place.”
Vallis said he plans to add daily specials and eventually pasta dishes, but held off on the latter to avoid any comparisons to Zabaglione.
For starters, Lauri and I shared a superb Wedge Salad ($8), an enormous quarter head of iceberg lettuce with a rich, flavorful homemade bleu cheese dressing, fresh bacon, and tomato slices. Lauri choose an appetizer – the Wine-Steamed Mussels ($15) – for her meal, and was impressed with the size of the dish. The Prince Edward Island shellfish were perfectly prepared with white wine, lemon, butter, onions, and enough garlic to ward off any vampires. Served with grilled crostini for dipping (and you will want to dip), the appetizer was more than ample as a meal.
If I was really hungry, I may have been tempted by Vallis’s favorite, the 22-ounce Grilled Bone-In Ribeye Steak ($32). Instead, I went with the Deli-Style Reuben Sandwich ($11). This classically prepared sandwich, grilled with lean, thinly sliced corned beef, fresh sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese on marble rye and served with french fires, was the perfect antidote to a chilly winter evening. The crew at the legendary Katz’s Deli in New York would approve.
The sole disappointment was that The Brown Dog wasn’t offering its locally sourced oysters the night we visited, which meant I had to forgo my first choice, the Oyster Po-Boy Sandwich ($16). I plan to remedy that missed opportunity soon.
The Brown Dog. 14 Central St., Ipswich. 978-312-6362. thebrowndogipswich.com.
Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.