Located a couple of feet below street level on College Avenue in Rockridge, the new Golden Squirrel Pub is a very casual, American take on the gastropub concept. It serves beer, cocktails and wine, in addition to a smartly concise and eclectic menu of pub fare.
Descending the stairs to the front door, halfway submerged beneath the sidewalk, one is reminded a little of the TV show “Cheers.” Once inside, the energy is fairly consistent with that assessment, despite the overt newness of everything in the room, including the crowd of diners and drinkers of all legal ages who line the bar.
Despite the local, organic produce on the menu, and the fancy-sounding drinks, this is a bar, and pleasantly so. At 3 p.m. on an overcast Wednesday, the servers and bartenders had their hands full, and the chatter was already at a dull roar – one might surmise that the neighborhood needed a place like the Golden Squirrel to come along.
Most impressive about the Golden Squirrel, undeniably, is the beer list. Oakland is likely the best American city in which to drink beer, and the list here stands tall with Oakland’s best in terms of sourcing. It is made up primarily of great California breweries like Henhouse, Craftsman, Altamont, Fort Point and Drake’s. Guinness was the only foreign draft option on the day of my visit. With over 22 taps, beverage director Caroline Pagel, with help from Andrew Snow, cover a lot of ground stylistically, with something for session drinkers and hopheads alike. As an added bonus for the locavore set, the mileage to each brewery is listed beneath each selection.
Also impressive is the menu of food, served all day and night. Made from locally sourced, sustainably farmed ingredients, most of the dishes are new takes on classic bar food. From the starter menu, the Korean fried Buffalo wings ($9) were maybe the best chicken wings I have had in the last year. The wings alone are reason to visit. Grilled asparagus, with salsa verde and cured egg yolk ($8) seemed out of place, but were perfectly fine. The little gem salad with dashi turnips, bacon, apple and shiro miso vinaigrette ($9) was perfectly dressed and perfectly tasty, but what stood out about it most was the huge size of it. A health-conscious pub patron could eat well for just $9. Moreover, in typical pub fashion, one can add on to each of the salads on the menu, so whether the plan is to be health conscious, or simply have some greens with your fried chicken, the salads are a wise call.
Entrees were less impressive, but it’s a new place, and, based on the quality of the starters, I am guessing they will improve.
Spirit-wise, the Golden Squirrel boasts a smallish yet smartly selected assemblage of bottles, with the target audience being more of a drinking set than a sipping one. While you won’t spend evenings poring over their brandy selection, they have enough for the geeks while catering to the rest of us who simply want good, strong drink. Cocktails looked good on paper, but I found them to be overly sweet and incongruous on my visit. Iterations of classic drinks came out perfectly.
The wine list, nine boring “mom wines” (my term, not theirs), served on tap, is completely unimpressive, but if you come to a pub looking to be impressed by the wine selection you are destined for disappointment.
Service is warm and friendly. They’re clearly still figuring out exactly what to do, as is always the case in new restaurants and bars, but the entire staff was overwhelmingly helpful on my visits.
All told, the Golden Squirrel in its fresh iteration is already a worthwhile place to go. Rockridge will doubtlessly want to hang onto this friendly den of anti-hipsterdom, and my bet is that they will find their rhythm and hold it steady.
Collin Casey has worked in the wine business his entire adult life, including 11 years as a sommelier. He lives in Oakland.