Spitzer's Corner is a long-awaited attempt to bring the gastropub phenomenon to the Lower East Side. In a handsome, prominent corner location, the pub serves 40 draught beers and almost as many in bottles, along with a menu of food. The place received attention from culinary onlookers before it opened, when it signed on "Top Chef" semifinalist Sam Talbot as chef (not to be confused with the Sam Talbot who made his mark selling kimchi hot dogs one block from Spitzer's Corner). But Mr. Talbot, the chef, left the project amid talk of creative differences, and the restaurant opened under chef Michael Cooperman. And the gastro-part of the equation seems to be a distant runner-up to the beer.
There's something archaic about the two dark, rustic rooms, with their rough-hewn wooden communal tables and impressive, trough-like batteries of taps, but the monastic vibe, and any sensitive eardrums, are shattered by a nightly deluge of loud, eager young drinkers. All stripes seem to be represented, from beer scholars to those celebrating bachelorette parties to the occasional wretch who leans against the bar holding a glass of wine. (When pressed, a server admitted that Spitzer's does pour "a shiraz, a cab — do you need to know the names?")
The single-page, wide-margined menu leads off with bar snacks: olives ($4); Marcona almonds ($6), and a thirst-inducing bowl of hot popcorn ($4), seasoned with salt and faintly smoky pork grease, that's one of just a few items here with idiosyncratic character. The gastropub philosophy, as I understand it and have enjoyed it from London to Brooklyn, brings high-grade, interesting cooking, often showcasing the affinities between beer and food in a casual pub environment. Spitzer's has the casual pub environment in spades, but the cooking, tasty as it is, is not particularly riveting.
There's a raw bar, from which I sampled various oysters at $3 apiece and clams on the half shell for $1.50, both excellent, and a pint glass filled with subtly seasoned shrimps ($13). A range of little savory snacks includes globe artichokes ($8), halved and finished on the grill, so the juicy leaves have a bit of char to them. The notoriously wine-unfriendly vegetable finds a good friend in beer. It's served with a tart aioli, but it's better dipped in the clarified butter that accompanies a dish of small steamed clams ($9). The latter are excellent, fat and juicy and only a little gritty — the customary rinsing bowl of clam broth is absent. But other little touches make themselves pleasantly felt. Spitzer's quality control is better than at many of New York's highest-rated restaurants: On multiple visits, I only found a total of one faulty shellfish, one whose shell remained closed after cooking. That went for the great mussels too — in a main course ($14), they're steamed, quite conventionally, with tomato, roasted peppers, and sausage.
Spitzer's makes competent rounds of other familiar bases as well. There's a burger ($13), ground from flavorful short ribs, smokily grilled, and served on a roll that's too hard, so that each bite pushes the meat out the back end of the resistant sandwich. The tomato, cooked onion, and fries are top-notch, though, as are the optional cheese (cheddar or Maytag blue) and bacon accents. A $19 hanger steak, served with luxurious potato gratin, is the price pinnacle of the menu; it does its job, as does the $9 sandwich of nutty, rich grilled Ascutney Mountain cheese from Vermont. All the food is characterized by a common heartiness. Only a plate of spaghetti ($12), dressed with tomatoes and scoops of ricotta, seems to call for a glass of wine rather than a beer.
The beers are broken down by category — lagers, ales, dubbels — and tightly priced between $6 and $8 a glass. For each, the menu lists its percentage of alcohol and offers a brief description, an enlightening snippet, such as "possibly the best pilsner brewed in America" or "hugely complex, caramel, molasses, black cherry, date, fig." There are delicious brews from all over America. and Europe. I was particularly thrilled with a thick New York State pale ale, Southern Tier's Unearthly ($7), with the citrusy vigor of fresh hops; and Belgium's St. Bernardus Prior 8 ($7), a dark, ruddy ale whose remarkable creamy balance belies its strength.
Yes, Spitzer's offers a dazzling panoply of beers, but there doesn't seem to be any inclination to show off the brews' range by offering serious food to eat with them. Surely a clientele that takes an interest in the Unibroue Blanche de Chambly or the Gouden Carolus Amber is curious about the gastronomic possibilities of these beverages, possibilities that extend far beyond burgers and mussels — no matter how nicely Spitzer's prepares that well-trodden fare.
Spitzer's Corner (101 Rivington St. at Ludlow Street, 212-228-0027).