THE SCENE: On a stormy Tuesday night somewhere after 8:45 p.m., I hardly expected to be scavenging for a parking space. Location, location, location is not something Victory Brewing Company has going for it—world-class beer, however, it does. So despite being tucked behind an industrial park, this award-winning brew pub does for the western portion of Chester County what the Baseball Hall of Fame does for Cooperstown, N.Y.
First things first: This is Downingtown, not Old City. Flashy, sleek, trendy and upscale are not words you’re going to throw around when it comes to Victory’s new look. Warmer and more polished, though, are apt descriptors. Gone are the cement floors, replaced by hardwood. Other new additions include wainscoting and cozy booths, eye-catching (and massive) domed copper kettle tops hovering above the amber-stained bird’s-eye maple bar (the vats were imported from a defunct Czech Republic brewery), and display cases filled with Pennsylvania beer paraphernalia. All of these fresh touches give what was once a cold warehouse atmosphere a much-needed dose of personality.
Adding to this more personable vibe are a round, copper-topped booth deemed the Brewmaster’s Table, the obligatory flat-screen TVs, and a couple of pool tables (on wheels). Alas, the darts are history. I didn’t see it in action, but apparently, watching the new automated growler system do its thing is a real treat.
The new bar boasts 20-plus seats, an improved 20-draft tap system that delivers to three locations, and a lot more room for vertical consumption. Three distinct dining rooms offer a seating capacity for 240, compared to 120 before renovations. But because the spaces are broken up, you don’t feel like you’re in one of those vast chain restaurants. The center of the action is in the “beer hall” to the left of the bar, with tables arranged end-to-end for a more communal feel.
The newly expanded restrooms are still modest design-wise, but with all that beer consumption going on, I think we all know what counts, right?
THE FOOD: Beer rules Victory’s menu, but there’s still plenty of ambitious pub grub to go around: Wings of Victory, doused with hot, mild honey barbecue, chipotle or four-alarm sauce; hearth-baked pizzas layered with varying combinations of hickory-smoked bacon, angus beef, pepperoni, smoked pork and andouille sausage (there are veggie toppings, too); dolled-up Angus burger melts and other sandwiches; a smattering of salads and entrées; and starters featuring the usual suspects—spinach and artichoke dip, mussels, nachos, a cheese plate.
A big addition to the menu is a selection of barbecue items—chicken, pork, ribs, brisket, salmon and house-cured pastrami—prepared in-house on the newly acquired slow-barbecue smoker. I was a little disappointed by the ribs. They were meaty and tender enough, but lacked the pizzazz promised by the signature Hop Devil sauce. The collard greens were a bit too tangy, without a hint of smokiness.
Light and crispy, the fish and chips had some kick, as did the tartar sauce. Alas, the fries were “plain Jane.”
The pear and walnut salad, though, was refreshing, with meaty nuts, ripe pear pieces and an intriguing (if a pinch oily) Saison vinaigrette. The cheese was listed as Manchego, but it was much softer and creamier than the norm.
The menu’s price points are more than reasonable—the filet entrée is $16—and the portions generous. If you’re in the mood for comfort food, Victory is a good place to find it.
THE EXPERIENCE: On my visits, the wait staff was friendly and conscientious. We received two apologies—one after the kitchen ran out of mussels, and another as soon as our waitress saw that my request for dressing on the side wasn’t delivered (she darted back to the kitchen and returned with a fresh salad before I had a chance to say anything).
Service was fast and efficient. The only misstep was the pacing: It took a while to get the appetizers—and we’d barely finished off the last bites when the entrées showed up. When you’re sipping beer with your meal, a little respite is good for the digestive system and allows one to savor the brew’s characteristics unadulterated by the food.
Victory attracts a melting pot of patrons of all ages, so snagging a booth across from the bar made for good people-watching. We loved the new beer books packed with descriptions of Victory brews and insider info on recipes, alcohol content, suggested food pairings and anecdotal stories. The mini glasses also get a thumbs-up from those of us who can’t quite down a full pint with dinner.
THE SKINNY: Victory co-owner Bill Covaleski has a saying: “All our character is in our beer.” Since the renovation, it seems he’s added a new one: “This wasn’t a glitzy restaurant before, so it’s not going to be one now.”
The trick to nabbing the full-blown Victory experience is to get a little curious about the beer—and to score a knowledgeable server. On the night I visited, the staff skewed young. It appears to run counter to Victory’s mission to have underage servers who can’t offer personal insight on its brews. I’ve heard and read similar concerns from regulars—and if there’s a go-to person on the floor, he or she was never pointed out to us. (Dare I use the term brewmollier?)
It also helps to recognize that this isn’t a gastro-pub. It’s a brewery—vast, spacious, comfortable, affordable and delightfully unpretentious. From a marketing standpoint, Covaleski and partner Ron Barchet know their niche. And they know where they excel.
Instead of biting off more than they could chew in the kitchen, they amped up the menu just enough. Adding a little depth to the dishes’ flavor profiles and securing consistent service should be on their “fixes and tweaks” list. But whatever criticisms groupies might have about the food, the Victory experience has been—and will always be—measured first by its beer, second by its food and service.
To that end, founders Covaleski and Barchet have made a conscious decision to “keep things down to earth,” and it’s hard to argue with that. They’re not overcharging for the food on their menu, so I’d have to say everything else is icing on the cake.
If you want Old City, you know where to go. Meanwhile, Covaleski and Barchet know what they want, and they’ve done it—on time and under budget.
Location: 420 Acorn Lane, Downingtown; (610) 873-0881, victorybeer.com
Cuisine: Pub grub, smokehouse specialties
Attire: Anything goes
Atmosphere: Low-glitz industrial warehouse vibe
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-midnight Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Brunch: 10 a.m.-noon Saturday-Sunday. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Extras: Pool tables, low-key gift shop with Victory memorabilia, off-site barbecue catering