Just what makes a pub a "pub"?
If we're speaking of an English place, it should serve fish and chips. Most of them list a number of beers and perhaps a few interesting whiskeys. A long wooden bar says "pub," as do library shelves, wooden beams and a decorated mirror.
But that's textbook stuff. An establishment truly aspiring to pub status employs servers and bartenders who, if they don't make you feel like you're one of their oldest and dearest friends, at least somehow give the impression their mothers all know your mother. In addition, you should expect to bump into at least one regular so quirky—and harmless—you just end up shrugging in disbelief.
And if these are the guidelines, I'd have to say Holy Grail Pub has earned its name.
Despite being set in a brand-new—and still incomplete—Plano development, they've imported enough old-world charm to successfully pull off the look and feel part. There's a mirror behind the dark stained bar, a faux stone wall in the back and wooden ceiling beams passing under the commercial ductwork. One time my waitress pats my back gently as she listens to my order. Another time the bartender giddily walks through the new beers. And when I step up to pay my bill, he breaks away from a conversation with another patron.
"Didn't mean to interrupt," I say.
"That's all right," the patron replies. "We're just going over art supplies for his school—I didn't know what he wanted."
Yep, it's the kind of place where an employee's mother will belly up on a Saturday, then brag about her son's educational plans to a complete stranger.
And the fish and chips? "Well," claims manager Brad Jacobsen, "a lot of people say they're the best fish and chips they've had"—although from my experience, the beer batter developed into a curious patch of thin felt and the cod appeared watery, with a translucent edge. So either these people Jacobsen speaks of normally buy Van de Kamp's or the kitchen was in the midst of a one-day slump when I ordered.
My guess would be the latter, for chef Shimond Bradley and owner Brian Rudolph have otherwise put together a pleasing and rather unconventional menu. They serve chicken Kiev, if you can believe it—and not the soggy, run-of-the-mill version familiar to school-sponsored banquets and Kiwanis club dinners, but a rich, bone-in breast surrounded by a crunchy, deep-brown crust. It sits atop thick, coarsely mashed potatoes and a sauce they call garlic butter, though it packs a cayenne punch. Call it fried chicken and people in these parts might decide to ditch Bubba's and head to the Plano-Frisco border. From the brief description of their spicy lettuce cups, I expected some sort of seasoned chicken in pre-formed iceberg shells. Instead, the kitchen dresses tender white meat and slivers of red cabbage in a surprisingly fresh, minty dressing, which it spreads over Bibb leaves. The effect is more intriguing and "Southern" than spicy, but that's more than enough to get your attention.
Bradley did a stint with The Libertine, and Rudolph previously worked at The Old Monk, so both understand the importance of a compelling menu, even when 150 beers are the real draw. The kitchen staff mixes and rolls out the dough for their pretzels rather than buying them ready-made. Dressings are prepared on location. They also hand cut French fries and grind the burger meat in house, adding in a little pork fat to the latter for a more juicy impression.
"The idea was not to do typical pub food," Jacobsen explains, "but still keep it relaxed."
Their efforts pay off in a thick and truly masculine ground beef patty. The "Holy Grail Burger" comes stacked with red onions, lettuce and (curiously) a single tomato slice on ciabatta bread—a necessity, as rivulets of fat dripping from the meat would melt a weaker bun. You can choose to top the burger with any selection from their cheese board, so I picked San Simon, a semi-soft Spanish style with a smoked flavor I suspected would play nicely. Unfortunately they were out, so I opted to "let the chef decide." He settled on what tasted like a Robiola—a bit too tangy for such a good burger, though not enough to really throw off the composition.
Holy Grail's hand-cut fries would be better if blanched, yet they are fluffy inside with flavor very similar to baked potatoes seasoned with a few flecks of kosher salt. All you really need is a dip of sour cream and chives to complete the illusion.
Not everything works as well. Fried goat cheese involves rather large scoops of tart curd in a crust—more puckering than pleasing. And a beautifully ruddy and thick tomato basil soup needs something to hold down the sharpness...though it does come with very good grilled cheese sandwich wedges. On the whole, it's a worthwhile place to hang out if you're on the way to Ikea or happen to live in the area.
Or work nearby—this part of town, after all, has street names like Headquarters and vast corporate campuses bearing the names of HP, McAfee, Intuit, AT&T and others. No wonder I walked in during Friday happy hour and mumbled to myself, "So that's where all the pleated khaki pants went."
But those folks are hardly offbeat enough to qualify for quirky. Except for maybe one—a guy who comes in every Sunday and must—absolutely must—sit at the same table, one right next to the kitchen door (routinely considered one of the worst pieces of real estate in any restaurant). I know about the guy because the waitress stopped me as I headed in that direction one Sunday brunch. She had taken the precaution of securing the table with a handwritten "reserved" sign for him.
The place doesn't really require reservations, so I looked at her and pointed at the little placard and she relayed the story. "One time someone else was at that table," she tells me, wrapping up the saga. "I'll never make that mistake again."
Apparently the quirky guy stood there on the verge of hyperventilating before they coaxed him to another spot. The next Sunday, that particular waitress took the day off—also a mistake, for when he noticed she was missing...
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Well, in her words, "it was like World War II."
Not quite sure what that means. Maybe it was a bad day for any Germans in the crowd. Or perhaps he just recounted gruesome war stories.
What the hell—loud conversation is also part of the true pub experience.
Holy Grail Pub 8240 Preston Road, Plano. 972-377-6633. Open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday, noon-2 a.m. Saturday-Sunday. $$