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New Barrack Tavern, 601 Penistone Road, Hillsborough, Sheffield, South Yorkshire
Walking or driving around the west side of Sheffield one sees a lot of intriguing pub facades. From the classic Yorkshire stone ale houses on the hillsides to the industrial inns along the River Don, it's easy to be tempted inside to sample the wares. This is why I never considered trying the New Barrack Tavern. First of all the name isn't exactly inspiring. "Barrack" brings to mind a bleak building full of soldiers, and "tavern"...well, as an American I picture a dingy kitschy hole-in-the-wall full of rednecks and bikers and stinking of stale cigarettes and cheap whisky.
And the location isn't exactly breathtaking. Situated on a busy stretch of Penistone Road near the rear carpark of a supermarket of epic proportions (Morrison's), a DIY emporium (B&Q), and the Hillsborough edition of McDonald's, this pub with its rather plain visage doesn't exactly convince one to stomp on the brakes and screech to a thirsty halt.
But because we'd heard good things about the New Barrack Tavern a friend and I resolved to try it. One lazy afternoon, after completing several mundane errands, we braved the suburban-style boulevard traffic and found a parking space near the pub. As we walked through the door, passing from "outside" to "inside", we could feel a magical transformation taking place: we had entered a goldmine! This pub is simply oozing with character. First of all the main circular bar welcomes you with open arms, offering a selection of eight real ales, most of them locally brewed. The staff is very friendly and helpful should you wish to sample a few before choosing. Off to the left is a small room with dart board and a row of seven beer fonts featuring Belgian and German lagers, one perry, and Budweiser Budvar. (That's the original Czech Budweiser, not that American pisswater macrobrew that kids drink. So why can't they drink the real stuff?) There are also tons and tons -- sorry, bunches -- of Irish and malt whiskies available should you desire something stronger.
The decor of the main room reminds me of the now-defunct Twenty Tank brewpub in the SoMa district of San Francisco. The walls are covered with beer signs dating from the early and mid 1900s while benches and stools cluster around antique sewing machine tables. There is a sunny nonsmoking room in the back as well as an inviting beer garden.
But if you're just having a pint or two, stay near the circular bar because it£s the best place to be. On our first visit we had a taste of Moonshine (4.3% ABV, Abbeydale Brewery, Sheffield, South Yorkshire). It was nice enough but not outstanding; apparently the taste has changed recently according to the young barman who used to like it. We opted for pints of Rockingham Spalt (4.5% ABV, Wentworth Brewery Ltd, Rotherham, South Yorkshire)This is a lovely beer with a nice chewy bitter, grapefruity with a golden colour. On our next visit, which was during the Second Annual Philadelphia Blues Festival, we had pints of Excalibur (4.0% ABV, Good Honest T'Ales). After an evening drinking Wentworth WPA down the road this seemed a bit fluffy and foamy, like too much candy floss in the mouth and no discernable bitter taste. It's a frustrating beer, especially late at night when all the taxis in the city seem to vanish.
On our most recent visit we discovered the joys of Barnsley IPA (4.2% ABV, Barnsley Brewing Co Ltd, Barnsley, South Yorkshire). This is a great, crisp session beer, perfect for a sunny day out in the garden. I also had a taste of Anglo Dutch Kletswater (4.0%), which definitely has Czech hops, giving it a very good full pilsner taste. I'd love one of these the next time I feel more pilsey. If you like pilsner, definitely try this one.
The pub also has very good food, and the daily chalkboard menu includes a couple of vegetarian options. The nut loaf I tried was everything you'd want in a nut loaf (they can be quite boring), and my mother's vegetable crumble and my companion's pork and cider were excellent as well. On another lunchtime visit I had an unusual but satisfying carrot pesto lasagne. My friend's chilli was served with a side of good Mexican-style hot sauce which reminded me of the salsa I used to buy by the pint from Mi Lupita's Cafe in Long Beach, California. The salads are quite nice as well and inspired -- i.e. no iceberg-cuke facsimiles.
The New Barrack Tavern features live music on weekends, with R&B on Saturday nights and jazz (The Dizzy Club) on Sundays. In the afternoons Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and other old jazz favourites emanate softly from the stereo, making the pub an idea place for conversation or quiet relaxation. What a find this place is, and it's open all afternoon. The next time you find yourself in Penistone Road, bored beyond belief, be good to yourself and stop in for a sensual restorative.
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(Last updated 10 February 2006)