Saturday, July 2, 2011


Home away from home

"Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name..."                          

Yeah, how overused is that lyric? So I apologize for that, but we all do want to have a place where we can get away from it all, but still have a comfort level built out of familiarity. For me, and much of the kohai, that place is The Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell, NJ. The bar staff recognizes The Senpai and me when we come in. When one of us shows up alone, we usually get asked if the other is coming as well. And now The Geisha, The Control and The Duck and Daisy are known to some of the staff.

So one would ask how we can do an objective write-up of a place that is so dear to us? Actually, I believe it will be easier to do than for a place new to us. When you visit a place for the first time and have a good time, much of what could be wrong is hidden to're having fun and issues can be overlooked. Likewise, if the experience is negative, you focus on your frustrations and they have a tendency to overshadow anything positive. In the case of The Cloverleaf Tavern, we've been there on nights when we didn't want to leave, but also had visits that left us scratching our heads over some of the wait staff. When it's this familiar, little things get noticed and objectivity is not a problem.

The ATMOSPHERE here is not unique to many restaurants that are in college towns with a population rife with families who have called the place home for generations. That's a nice way of saying that you get a lot of barely-legal drinkers, geriatrics and everyone in between. I love places like this. The older patrons usually have great stories to share and are appreciative of the audience. The younger crowd wants to try to impress, but is still open to learning about the beer that the place serves. And due to their beer selection you find many beer enthusiasts here willing to talk beer until they finally kick you out.

The architectural style seems to be one of expansion and necessity and the lay-out of the place could only be worse if you really worked at it. The hostess station is in what is nearly the dead center of the establishment. You couldn't pick a more inconvenient place to put it and I can only assume it's where it is because the bar was there first and it would be too cost-prohibitive to reconstruct the whole joint to improve the traffic flow. Despite a waiting area next to the back door, the result is that many people block off the traffic from the bar to the dining rooms and the rest rooms. Trying to wind your way to the rest rooms, after polishing off a 10% ABV barleywine or two, can be challenging and dangerous to glassware precariously perched on servers' trays.

A short paragraph on the restrooms: clean and well-maintained with many amenities including a mouthwash dispenser. It's up to you to figure out why a restaurant known for its beer selection and award-winning cocktails would have one of these in the bathroom.

The SERVICE is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde story; it all depends on where you are. All of the kohai prefer to be at the bar or the tall tables in the bar area when we're there only to partake in some adult beverages. We tend to differ when we're there for dinner and any place you sit other than the bar area is hit or miss. Even the low tables in the bar area are served by the general wait staff.

The problem is that they have some pretty high turnover in the dining rooms. It's not that they're bad waiters or waitresses (they're pretty attentive), it's just that it almost seems that as soon as someone gets to know anything about the beer, they leave. But this is starting to stabilize and the owner has been started to send his staff to Cicerone training. How awesome is that?

They have four different dining areas: a main dining area, the really nice patio (when weather permits), the family room (which I try to avoid like the plague unless I've got the kids) and even an upstairs room that you can reserve for parties. They utilize that room on special days or when they know they'll be crowded.

The bar staff is more consistent and they're pretty knowledgeable about the beer. They've got some excellent bartenders...some of which have won awards for their creations. It's this group (and the managers) that make it such a welcome place for us.

The FOOD consists of some pretty good pub grub and restaurant fare. Their burgers are pretty darn good (I prefer the sliders) and they have a Burger of the Week which can be rather creative. The fish and chips are an Irish pub classic and are excellent. Their weekly lunch and dinner specials offer an ever-changing choice of well-prepared food. They even have a brunch laid out every Sunday which is pretty good, I must say. They'll do special brunch themes on special days like St. Patrick's Day (or the closest Sunday to it), Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day.

The food is pretty reasonable in PRICE. It would have to be to keep the college kids coming back night after night. In some cases they're there just to drink which means the beer needs to be offered at a decent price-point as well. But there are brews that are pretty expensive because of what they are, but many are in the middle of the price range when you do comparative shopping. Considering the number of special brews they carry, they do a great job of keeping the prices in check.

The taps on 6/29/11
Which brings us to the BEER. They have 24 taps...some are constant, but most of them rotate. Their bottle selection is pretty impressive, but don't look for anything from Anheuser-Busch; they don't carry any of it, he  writes with a barely suppressed ear-to-ear grin. They're always bringing in special firkins and sixtels, but you need to know about them almost immediately because they run through them quickly. The best way to do this is to "Like" them on Facebook. That's also a great way to keep up with all their beer events: tap take-overs, weekly menu specials, brewery nights and Randall the Enamel Animal runs. Oh yeah, they've got one and they certainly have fun with it.

They fill growlers off of any of the draft beers as long as they have enough to satisfy all their patrons.  They offer three colors in the special growlers produced by Benjamin Arthur, but also have the standard screw top jugs.

The Senpai (800) and The Beer Samurai (801)
One of the most genius aspects of the CL is that they have a couple of loyalty programs. One card is based on what you spend (food and drinks), but there's another program based on what you drink...and there are a few levels. All levels have perks as you run through great styles and different breweries and the whole thing is a lot of fun and keeps customers coming if a beer geek needs another reason. At the time of this post The Senpai and I have completed the MBA (Master of Beer Appreciation) (see picture to the left), with The Control and The Duck starting to fill out punches on their cards. The Senpai is close to completing the PhD (Professor of Hops and Drafts) and I've started to fill out my second card in that level. We've all experienced some pretty great brews doing this and have had a lot of fun. Just pulling out your card can spur a conversation with others at different levels within each program. We've met some really great beer nerds in this manner.

Update: As of August 2012, the Duck and the Control have both completed their MBAs, the Senpai has completed his PhD and I have completed my second PhD, with no real urgency to complete a third. 

So be sure to visit The Cloverleaf Tavern and raise a pint. It's a great, friendly, family-safe environment with a lot of excellent beer and great food! Perhaps you'll catch one, two or more of us there feeling right at  home bellied up to the bar. If you're at the bar, tell them that the Beer Samurai sent you...they may have a story or two for you. 

"And you're always glad you came."

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