There are no gastro pubs in The Valley. EVERY pub serves good food– often homemade, and usually available until late. That’s just the way things are here in Luzerne County, PA, in the Wyoming Valley of the Susquehanna River in Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA). It’s one of the many delights of living in Da Valley, as I learned shortly after moving here and wrote about in Dare beer’s good in deh Valley, heynit?
Luzerne County is home to about 320,000 people, living in 76 different municipalities. There are 489 churches, and many more bars, brewpubs, taverns or saloons. How many bars are there? The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania limits the number of bar licenses in any county to 1 per 3,000 population, but it seems to me that there are more than 106 bars in the Valley because there are more than 106 street corners which contain bars, and there are more bars than churches (I did a quick head count once). Both bar and restaurant liquor licenses require food service on the premises, which explains why every bar serves food.
The Valley is a well-kept secret. Less than 120 miles from two major metropolitan centers (New York and Philadelphia), nestled among the ski resorts and casinos of the Poconos: it is a provincial place where things change slowly, or not at all. It reminds me of Chicago in the 1950s, where I grew up. My Chicago was a city of small neighborhoods, centered around ethnic churches (Polish, Bohemian, Italian, Irish, Lithuanian, etc.), and the corner bar. That Chicago is gone, along with its corner bars, written about in a piece from YBN’s Chicago Beat this last year. But it is alive and well in The Valley. I feel right at home here.
Those ethnic Europeans drank a lot of alcohol! They were coal miners, tradesmen, or factory workers. After a long day at work they’d stop at the corner for a drink, and fill their lunch pails with beer to bring home for dinner. When the mines flooded in 1959 and coal mining ended, the miners had to leave The Valley for work elsewhere. Many former residents are now moving back and find that the work may have changed, but the good food and beer tradition remains. My husband, Rick, grew up around here, and can point out watering holes where he drank when in college. For instance, Senuna’s (a Lithuanian name), adjacent to King’s College, serves hearty, home-cooked food to hungry students during the day, and hosts a boisterous college crowd at night.
The corner bars in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne, or Kingston have changed little in 50 years. Many have changed hands, changed names, and acquired a new coat of paint, but are still pretty much as they were 50-100 years ago. What has changed, though, is the interest in craft beers. Many bars offer a selection of regional craft beers (e.g. Dogfish Head, Victory, Yuengling), a variety of American and international bottles, and beer from small independent local breweries. Craft beers abound in the area; there are over 111 licensed breweries in PA, of which 8 are located in NEPA alone; there are also the nearby east coast breweries such as Dogfish Head. It’s fun to track down new releases from these breweries; there is a web site, mybeerbuzz.com, that tells you what’s “on” at various drinking establishments — very convenient for the craft-draft hunter such as myself.
But it can be a challenge to taste these wonderful brews, since the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is an alcoholic beverage control state. By law, beer may be purchased from a licensed beer store in cases or kegs, usually from large breweries. If you prefer smaller amounts of craft beers, you will have to buy it at a food establishement. Bottled beer is available for carry-out in many delis, pizza parlors, and bars, and good selections of craft beers are available in the larger supermarkets that maintain restaurant areas. Carry-out is limited to 192 ounces (16 12-oz. beers) per purchase; larger amounts require multiple trips to your car, carrying 2 6-packs at each trip.
But if you want to taste the local craft beers, a drinking establishment is your best choice, since the draft beer is fresh, you can drink as much as you like, and you can enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded individuals. The best beer bars have extensive collections of U.S and imported bottles, more so than you might find in comparable establishments in other states. My current regional favorites: Breaker’s Phoebe Snow White IPA and Susquehanna’s HopFive IPA.
Bar patrons in The Valley expect quite a bit more than burgers, fries and nachos. The gamut runs from mom-and-pop cafés, which serve home-cooked fabulous dinners with daily specials, to foodie bars with gourmet chefs. Typical bar food in the Valley includes: (1) seafood: lobster tails, oysters, steamed clams, fried haddock, shrimp ;(2) ethnic food: potato pancakes, pierogies, stuffed cabbage, home-made sausage, lasagna and pasta; (3) healthy salads and vegetarian entrees; (4) home-smoked barbecue pork sandwiches; (5) steaks; (6) pizza and the related calzone. The Valley takes its pizza seriously. There are at least 20 different styles of pizza in The Valley, all are homemade and unique.
If beer is King in the valley, then food is Queen.
Take, for example, Knuckleheads, a bar in Swoyersville. We met a friend there on a Tuesday evening and within an hour we were buddies with everyone in the bar, including an entire bowling team, even buying rounds for each other! A rollicking good time! Not our usual bar, as it served only the national mass market stuff, or local “lager” (Yuengling Lager) and “Steg” (Stegmaier Lager). But the food! Homemade by grandma in the back, the menu changes according to her whim. On the weekend, she cooked up potato pancakes, homemade clam chowder, hand-filled pierogies, and lasagna.
One current favorite watering hole is The Anthracite Café in the Parsons section of Wilkes-Barre. Located in a former VFW lodge, and named for the large chunks of shiny coal behind the bar, it has a fantastic chef, and all food is prepared from scratch in their own kitchen. There are nightly specials–we love the Seafood Wednesdays. The draft list is exceptional, and the bar often hosts a “tap takeover” to showcase a regional brewery. We recently met the crew from Susquehanna Brewing company; got a couple of free beer glasses and tasted their offerings. We were impressed by their 6th Generation Stock Ale–a nice session beer, reminiscent of an English bitter.
Mike, the owner of the Anthracite Café, is often seated at the bar and ready to tell his fish tales; he closes the Café for a week every July to go fishing. He is much more knowledgeable about beer than I am, and lets me try anything on the list. I decided it was time for him to learn something about bourbons, so I brought him a bottle of Eagle Rare to taste. Bringing a bottle to a bartender is the equivalent of coals to Newcastle, heyna? Especially at the Anthracite Café!
A couple of our other favorites in Wilkes-Barre are Elmer Sudds, Bart & Urbys, and Beer Boyz. Sudds is a very small venue with a very large menu (we recommend the steamed clams); surprisingly they can fit an entire band in the back for a live music show. They always have the latest release from Breaker Brewing Company on draft. B&U is near the Wilkes University campus and seems to have an intellectual spin to it, filled as it is with college professors, intense conversation, and good beer. Beer Boyz is another college bar with an excellent draft list and nightly food specials.
The Arena Bar & Grill is relatively new, and is located near the Mohigan Sun Arena. The entire area is the site of a former strip mine that has now been developed into malls, restaurants, and other retail business. The Arena has a huge draft selection, and you can taste pretty much any current regionals, as well a few imports. There are over 20 beers on draft, and a lively happy hour on Sunday evening. Our main complaint with Arena is that beer is served in mugs that are fresh and warm out of the dishwasher, making for an often unpleasant contrast to a chilled draft.
Cooper’s Seafood House is known to many readers as the after-work bar in the TV series “The Office,” which takes place in Scranton. Yes, there really is a Cooper’s, and it serves great beer and seafood. Cooper’s originally began after WWII as a restaurant owned by the Kupris family (another Lithuanian bar), distant relatives of my husband Rick – I have heard that all Lithuanians in the Valley are related by a few degrees – the Kuprises changed their name to Cooper’s, and opened a second branch restaurant in Pittston, in The Valley. Cooper’s is noted for their lobster tails.
Then there are the “tough” bars, the local workingman’s bars, bikers bars.
One Saturday, Rick and I drove to West Nanticoke to visit JJ Banko’s, a rough and ready establishment, combination biker bar and yuppie foodie haven. Not long ago they were underwater–literally– as a result of the Susquehanna River Flood of 2011–not the first time they’ve been inundated, but they reopened quickly. Their beer list is uninspired and inexpensive, but their seafood is exceptional. We were not disappointed by their crab cakes! On the way to JJ Banko’s we drove through the little town of Plymouth, where Rick pointed out that when he turned 21 he tried to stop at every bar in town for one drink. He never made it (there were 76 bars on Main St. back then). This time we counted 16 drinking establishments in a single mile. Yes, it appears that things haven’t changed much in the Valley, heyna?
Don’t know what “heyna” means? Check out the YouTube video, “Heynabonics“ for an understanding of the Valley accent.