Comfort on Tap 

Concord's EJ Phair scores with its wide variety of homebrews and homey pub food.

The EJ Phair Brewing Company and Alehouse in Concord is the kind of pub where the lights are bright and the bathroom is clean. Where you can watch the Raiders game, but you don't have to. Where folks at the bar sit around cheering on a pair of newborns duking it out.

"Rock'em Sock'em Robots!" one spectator called out as he watched the babies' parents form the little hands into fists, live-action versions of the blue and pink plastic combatants in the Mattel game. One boxer charged, then the other, and the two met in a flurry of ... well, infancy. The babies seemed to be enjoying the spectacle, and the adults were too, but for different reasons, which is pretty much how the rest of the kids' childhoods will go. See, drinking can be fun for the whole family.

Baby-boxing seems to be as sleazy as EJ Phair gets, though I did spot a pair of women casting R-rated glances at a guy walking back from the bathroom. Perhaps Saturday nights get a little rowdier, but the alehouse doesn't exude the biker-brawl vibe. It must be that microbrewed beer.

EJ Phair's owner, JJ Phair, had been an ardent home brewer until 2000, when he opened a commercial brewery in Concord and named it after his grandfather, Ewert. The brewmaster started off making a couple of styles of ale and lager, and their number grew quickly; he now produces up to fifteen at any one time. This year, EJ Phair's Schwartzbier, a German-style black lager, captured a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, and the English amber he calls Shorty's Revenge won a bronze. In March, the brewery begat an alehouse, situated on a corner of Todos Santos Plaza, a public square and commercial center he's helping to turn into one of the most attractive areas in Concord.

You can admire the fairy lights strung up around the square from the tables in front of the brewpub, though in December that option is more optimistic than appealing. Inside, the alehouse pays homage to the British pub but doesn't try to re-create it in kitsch. The expansive room, wrapped in windows, is done up in creams and sages, with a prominent back wall tiled in exposed brick. (That's the thirteenth time I've written "exposed brick" this year, but to shake things up, EJ Phair's nude masonry is set in waves.) Tables radiate out from the bar at the restaurant's core. Couples can squirrel themselves away in the back booths, while big parties, or just big drinkers, can take over the massive wooden tables near the front, which are as thick and knotty as a Baudrillard quote.

On any given day, the chalkboards above the bar list twelve to sixteen beers on tap. Most of the taps spew EJ Phair brews -- a regularly changing menu of about eight different styles -- though JJ is confident enough in his skills to showcase four to eight "guest" beers. House beers range from the deep, dark Schwartzbier to the milky, sweet wheat beer, all with well-rounded flavors and rich hues.

To keep you upright on your stools, the Alehouse serves straight-up American bar food -- giant salads, oversize sandwiches, and sturdy entrées -- only fresher and more vegetable-friendly than the norm. Once you pass over the appetizers, that is. If you've brought a big enough group and forced beer on them, one member of the party -- why is it always me? -- will invariably goad the others (sheep, really) into ordering French fries. They're sure to get eaten, especially when they're thick and crisp and sprinkled with garlic, Parmesan, and parsley. And if you're ordering fried potatoes, it's only natural to add a side of fried calamari. Though the battered squid rings had toughened up in the fryer, they went quickly, too. So did the buffalo wings, moist and coated in a vinegary chile sauce, with a ramekin of blue cheese dressing to keep the calorie count from being too scandalously low.

The service you get may depend on the time of day -- on a lazy Saturday afternoon, everything arrived promptly, with regular passes to check in. On a busier Tuesday night, either the kitchen or the waitstaff seemed overwhelmed, and we waited almost thirty minutes between appetizers and entrées. Perhaps it was a plot to get us to order more beer. Which worked.

Chef Ken Heindell, who has cooked at Bunker's Grill in Brentwood and Pasta Vino in Danville, exercises his chops more assiduously on soups such as a chunky sausage, beer, and Cheddar soup hearty enough to cure frostbite in Minnesota, and also on a Chinese chicken salad that's a solid rendition of the standard -- colorful with lettuces, oranges, red peppers, and green onions -- and tossed in a dressing that the chef keeps from tasting too sweet by scattering sesame seeds overtop. His British-style dinner entrées make for comfort food, solid and solidly executed: fish and chips featuring a hunk of meaty whitefish; or a shepherd's pie, a concentrated stew of beef and vegetables topped with a layer of cheesy mash.

As you might expect, sandwiches make up the bulk of the alehouse menu. Heindell's burgers ooze the appropriate amount of juice when you bite into them, and so does a grilled portobello sandwich piled high with lettuce, tomato, roasted green chiles, and onion on a wholegrain oatmeal bun. The sauce on a pulled-pork sandwich -- and there was a lot of it -- didn't win me over, but the Ewert did. It features a tender, smoky grilled chicken breast with crisp bacon, caramelized onions, melting Brie, and beer mustard. The sandwiches come with your choice of a mixed-greens salad (for a slight fee); coleslaw or potato salad (both underseasoned but decent); or matchstick fries that had been battered to make them extra crisp. These were controversial: The steak-fries people hated them and the skinny-fries people loved them.

Brewpubs like EJ Phair, with food as wholesome as the atmosphere, are making beer-drinking a reputable pastime. Oddly enough, that doesn't seem to strip the fun out of it. Just as long as you hand over the keys once it's time to leave.

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