By Joseph Vitale
The crowd of reserved, middle-aged professionals at Bronx Beer Hall on Monday was an odd sight for a dive whose tables are typically occupied by boisterous students and shoppers speaking in various languages.
Far from a boozing bunch, the group of city officials, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs were there to kick off Savor the Bronx, a two-week event celebrating the borough’s culinary offerings.
Doubling as an homage to the fruits of the Bronx and a promotional effort for restaurants hoping to capitalize on exposure, the outcome left long-time patrons and first-time guests with plenty to appreciate on a chilly afternoon on Arthur Avenue.
Sprawled across the bar counter was a sampling of the Bronx Beer Hall’s colorful menu. Margherita pizza steamed alongside a half-dozen chicken wings. A plate of traditional antipasto lingered next to fried pickle chips. Mason jars filled with an array of craft beers passed from hand to mouth, each sipped and relished as if it were an aged Merlot.
Among a handful of notable guests sampling brews and chatting up reporters was Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.
After recommending the pumpkin spice (“nice and sweet,” he called it), he doled out advice for Fordham students looking to expand their understanding of the borough without breaking the bank. “I know the budgets are tight, but they got sales this week,” Diaz Jr said. “I would really advise Fordham students to get out, discover and really experience the Bronx.”
The promotion, produced by the Bronx Tourism Council and co-hosted by the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, offers fixed menu options for lunch and dinner across more than a dozen Bronx restaurants.
Among them are Ceetay, an Asian fusion restaurant on Tremont Avenue, and Charlie’s Bar and Kitchen, a modern American Grille, located on Lincoln Avenue. Both are new on the scene and brandish contemporary cuisine in trendy spaces, bringing some buzz to the Bronx.
As for Arthur Avenue, one does not need to look further than the Bronx Beer Hall itself. With glossy tables made of reclaimed woods, flat-screen televisions and chic lighting, it is instantly distinguishable from the rest of the market, with banners that seem like relics hanging above products that seem to have escaped replacement for decades.
Perhaps the menu is another litmus test of its ability to spring into the future. Like many hotspots of Manhattan and Brooklyn, most of what the Beer Hall sells is locally sourced from the Bronx. All of its ingredients, for example, come from the Arthur Avenue Retail Market.
Its beer listings tell a similar story. Monday’s top choices included a stout from Gun Hill Brewery, which brews all of its products just a stone’s throw from Fordham’s campus and exclusively uses ingredients from local farmers. Another favorite was a selection from The Bronck’s Beer Company. Named after Jonas Bronck, a Swedish Captain who settled in the Bronx in 1639, the brewery is owned and operated by sixth generation Bronx residents.
An added dash of homegrown pride was thrown in on Monday with a hot sauce—unabashedly dubbed “Bronx Hot Sauce”—set to make its debut at the Beer Hall this month. Created by King Phojanekong, chef at two burgeoning New York City restaurants, the sauce is produced by Small Axe Peppers, a company that locally sources and produces hot sauces in the borough using community farms.
To produce the sauce, Small Axe Peppers donated 3,500 Serrano pepper seedlings to community gardens throughout the Bronx. After they were harvested this summer, Small Axe Peppers purchased the peppers back from the gardens and used them to make the hot sauce in a local factory.
“People are really loving the sauce,” said Phojanakong, whose face was flush from sampling the sauce with news reporters at the kickoff event. “It helps when people are pushing local beers and other local products.”
Despite its forward momentum, Bronx Beer Hall is still rooted in the traditions of the Arthur Avenue Market.
Its menu offers classic Italian paninis, featuring ingredients like smoked mozzarella, provolone, mortadella, prosciutto and grilled eggplant. With a helping of pizzas, there is a mozzarella pie, one topped with fresh zucchini and a traditional Margherita style as well.
Even its branding offers a slice of tradition. Strung on the walls are Bronx and Italian flags, while its coasters sport a logo bearing the colors of the Bronx flag: blue, orange and white.
Still, there is a clear boundary between what is old and what is new when stepping into the market.
Few understand this tension between contemporary cuisine and an inescapable history better than Diaz Jr. Among his many challenges is moving the borough forward without leaving behind what has made it a place of such distinct passion and energy.
“We have so many great flavors in our borough, and I hope everyone—visitors and locals alike—will take advantage of this promotion and try something new,” Diaz Jr. said. “Our borough has an amazing food culture, and Savor the Bronx is a great way to explore our epicurean delights.”
Diaz Jr unsurprisingly had many supporters present at Savor the Bronx’s opening event. Most spoke highly of Diaz Jr.’s success in steadily ushering in a new era in the Bronx.
“I’ve always been trying to support my borough,” said Andre Luglo, a frequent patron of the market who works at one of the other restaurants participating in “Savor the Bronx.”
“But things like this show that we have real potential,” he added.
Daniel D’Allara, a frequent patron and resident of City Island, lauded Diaz Jr. for his efforts, finding his forward-thinking vision to be essential in re-branding the borough without forgetting its roots.
“The Bronx borough president is a real good guy,” said D’Allara before calling him “a true champion of the Bronx.”
Like his borough president, D’Allara finds places like the Bronx Beer Hall essential in cementing the borough as a haven for cultural-enthusiasts, all while confronting the friction between the frontiers of urban life and communities entrenched in ethnicity. He believes that promotional efforts like Savor the Bronx play a crucial role in making this possible in a borough he finds to be visited all too seldom.
“It’s got great beers and foods,” D’Allara said of Bronx Beer Hall, “but it’s really got a great sense of history.”
“There’s something about it that makes it feel so alive,” he admired.
Joseph Vitale is the Managing Editor for The Fordham Ram.