Written by Rick Nichols for Philly.com: Restaurants and Food section.
(Published under the title: On the Side: A grocery pub: How civilized.)
Shoppers (and opening-day gawkers) who headed to the new Whole Foods mega-market off Germantown Pike in Plymouth Meeting last week found themselves confronted by competing realities before they even got in the door. To one side were winter-beaters – firewood of every description. You had your composite Enviro-Logs and Java-Logs, and your stacks of “basic firewood” (which comes straight from the tree), but also, for the more elegantly inclined, neatly split birch.
There were jugs of Orchard Valley cider in an icy trough. And a few feet away, the heralds of spring – sprays of Cranberry Farms pussy willows ($2.99) and potted primrose in vivid reds and ivories. You could, it seemed, get anything you wanted – local cider (from Lansdale, 11 miles away) and grass-fed beef from Georgia, organic and conventional, even your season of choice: More winter? A side of spring with that?
If you entered through Door No. 1, nearest to the adjacent mall, a magic carpet awaited. Banks of pink orchids in clay pots. Cinematic cascades of blue hydrangea. A wall – yes, a vertical wall of golden beets and dandelion greens, purple-top turnips and red kale. At the egg case, the eggs were not only cage-free, they were carton-free, arranged one-by-one in rows on springy bedding (as they might be in the coop), a stack of small wire baskets at the ready to assist in your faux-farmstead collecting.
So this, children, is where eggs really come from, absent the squawk and feathers, the stench, and the mindless pecking. They come from a food-topia in Plymouth Meeting.
That was Door No. 1, gateway not only to the fresh foods (and the burger – add $1 for bacon – and pizza and sushi stations) around the perimeter, but also to an interior stocked with the usual suspects – frozen pizza and aisle-ender pillars of tortilla chips, herbal soaps and herby soups, pasta sauce and pet supplies.
But there was a Door No. 2, 50 feet away. And if you hooked an immediate left after entering it, an entirely different reality loomed: the Cold Point Pub.
Let us revise that. It was a different reality for suburban Philadelphia – a 28-seat tavern tucked in the bosom of a 45,000-square-foot supermarket, offering a modest menu, wine by the glass, beer by the pint, and local craft beers (Victory, Yards, Sly Fox, etc.) and imported beers in six-packs to go.
At other Whole Foods – in Los Angeles’ Fairfax neighborhood, say, or in D.C. – beer and wine are sold as staples, treated no more exotically than the olive bar.
In Plymouth Meeting, the new wrinkle was a conversation piece: “I like that you can try a bottle at a time, and see if you like it before putting out $150 for a case,” said Larry Herman, an electrical contractor, nursing a Troegs Rugged Trail Nut Brown Ale with his slice of pizza.
The Cold Point isn’t exactly what you’d call a cheating bar. Its windows look out on the back of the checkout lanes, and the two-for-$4 tortilla-bag specials; its interior has the crisp impersonality of a Starbucks.
But it is a baby step toward mainstreaming beer and wine sales, making them more a part of daily shopping and dining; what’s for supper, not just the stadium (or the sports bar or freshman binge-drinking). Normalizing the stuff, in other words.
Even so, it’s not exactly the Wild West: Whole Foods has a state “tavern license,” which means that the pub is on a separate register, that half its sales are booze, that the total amount of beer you can take out is 192 ounces (roughly 16 12-ounce bottles or three 64-ounce growlers).
To drink a glass of wine, you buy a smart card, insert it in a slot, and get 1-, 3- and 6-ounce pours from a vending machine stocked with what appeared to be French, Italian, and German wines – San Michele all’Adige Pinot Nero 2006, for instance, or Hirsch Riesling “Zobing” 2008. (Bottles of wine cannot be purchased to take home. Or what, the sky would fall?)
So it went in Plymouth Meeting, at a tiny pub a small step forward – the state’s twisted posture on alcohol sales slightly relaxed.
Over a notably beefy, hand-formed, grass-fed burger ($4.99), and a crisp glass of Victory St. Victorious last week, even the sobering view of the back end of the checkout counters didn’t seem too high a price to pay.