When considering choosing a brewery restaurant for dinner, it's fair to wonder if food is the No. 1 priority in the building.
Many are clear about where their hearts lie, calling their spaces tap rooms instead of restaurants. The profit margin on a pint of craft beer can be 30 percent, meaning a brewery restaurant can succeed simply by providing food good enough to persuade people not to leave for dinner.
Big Ditch Brewing Company, which opened downtown in 2015, has won craft beer awards and is regularly mobbed. I am partial to its Hayburner IPA, and I have lots of company. Since my meal there, the fruit and spice notes of the refreshing limited-edition Beautiful River Belgian-style farmhouse ale I tried have me thinking of returning. The food was like the furniture: sturdy, functional and designed to accommodate everyone.
The space at East Huron and Ellicott streets is at the center of a neighborhood where a resurgent restaurant population can make happy hour parking a challenge. The squeeze hasn't slowed Big Ditch, which does not take reservations for tables in the two-story room.
Upstairs, the mezzanine offers couches, dart machines and a shuffleboard game as well as more tables and an auxiliary bar. Downstairs, an assortment of regular and bar-height tables offer a variety of views of the streetscape, through garage doors open to the weather on temperate nights.
Despite the tall ceilings, sound levels built to a persistent roar as it filled, leaving me straining to follow conversation across the table.
Offerings on the laminated food menu change less often than the beer specials menu, which highlights limited-run and experimental brews. Lock Porter, made with smoked malt, was a treat in small doses, as in the tasting flight of five 5-ounce glasses ($10). It came with a handwritten index card for future reference.
For nibbles between drinks, the appetizer menu offers a stable of standards including hand-cut fries with dips ($9), pretzels ($10), a charcuterie and cheese plate ($18), and tortilla chips with a trio of dips (spinach, Buffalo and bean; $9).
Wings (eight for $11) were satisfyingly crispy-skinned, the hot version still tame but spicy enough to notice. A dash of Hayburner IPA in the sauce rounded it off with a note of sweetness.
More Big Ditch beer (Low Bridge golden ale) also adds brewery character to the cheese sauce served alongside boisterously sharp mustard with the soft, salt-speckled pretzels. The puffy breadstick-like mini-loaves would have been more enjoyable warm.
Six skewered shrimp fried in egg roll wrappers made a successful simple snack, with sweet soy for dipping ($10).
The plate that I would have happily downed for dinner in college was loaded tater tots ($10). The shredded potato nuggets arrived atop house-made cheese sauce, mostly hidden under ladles of mildly spicy beef chili made with more of that Hayburner, then a quilt of shredded cheddar crisscrossed with sour cream and dotted with scallion.
Pizzas ($11-$13) include a Cajun chicken Alfredo ($12) and Margherita ($11). The spinach and mushroom ($11) had plenty of fresh sauteed spinach and dollops of goat cheese, but its meek flavor profile would have benefited from more of the advertised garlic butter, and its crust had the chewier texture of prefabricated blanks.
The Breuben sandwich ($13), a Reuben analog whose corned beef has been brined in Excavator Brown Rye ale, was a highlight. Plenty of tender meat, slicked with Thousand Island dressing and crowned with melted Swiss, its fattiness cut with the tang of housemade sauerkraut, it was held together by stout slices of toasted rye.
Like other sandwiches, it came with worthy house-cut fries, well-crisped and judiciously salted. Unworthy fries are pushed aside and forgotten on plates, but at Big Ditch we left no fry behind. There are six fry sauces to try, like orange chipotle and balsamic red pepper, but on my card, gribiche, like an assertively dilled tartar sauce, led the pack.
A duck burger ($15) topped with arugula and smoked gouda, was resolutely charred and moist enough, tasty even if it didn't deliver that uber-dark-meat duck flavor. A pork schnitzel sandwich ($12) was centered around a well-cooked, crispy-edged, pork loin filet, flavor-boosted with mellow roasted garlic aioli.
Four entrees included a pork chop ($16) with pear chutney, and meatloaf ($14), both coming with homey smashed potatoes and a mixture of zucchini and yellow squash that has been sautéed, but not to death.
Made of pork and beef, the meatloaf was a hearty slab wrapped in bacon, solid comfort food napped with Excavator-infused barbecue sauce that didn’t need to be that sticky-sweet. Tying in Big Ditch core product, its beer, into the menu makes sense from a marketing perspective. But when its primary effect isn't flavor enhancement but diners asking each other, "Do you taste the beer?" it seems gimmicky.
Big Ditch's beer was even cited at dessert, where chocolate layer cake ($8) was promoted as made with Excavator, and sporting a Nutella filling. It was tall, and tasted like chocolate, but beer and hazelnut flavors eluded me. A wedge of pale green cheesecake on graham cracker crust was supposed to be Key lime but reminded me more of Kool-Aid.
Next time, I'd decline the cake, ask for another glass of Excavator, and just cut out the middleman. Even without dessert, at Big Ditch there's still a lot worth digging.
Big Ditch Brewing Company – 7 plates (out of 10)
Where: 55 E. Huron St., 854-5050
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: appetizers and salads, $9-$18; sandwiches, $12-$16 and entrees, $14-$16.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes.
Gluten-free: Salads, ask server.