Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen: Casual and Comforting

Newark’s newest restaurant has an executive chef who turns out updated comfort food in a casual setting.

Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen is not your typical college hangout. Yes, the University of Delaware hovers nearby. And, yes, it is anchored on student-laden Main Street in Newark. But the town’s newest tavern has an honest-to-goodness executive chef, a thoughtful menu that raises (ahem) the bar on pub grub and a family-friendly vibe.

When you walk into the restaurant, your eyes immediately go to a wall-size, friendly chalkboard that directs you to see a hostess, to sit at a communal table or to get a drink. We were led to one of the many high-top tables. The two inside dining areas have bars that create a rollicking noise level at times—especially when a UD game is showing on one of the several TVs flickering around the rooms. 

There is also an outdoor patio with heaters that’s been swathed in plastic for the winter. It may not have the open-air joie de vivre of summer, but there’s the coziness of being cocooned in a fun environment.

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Given the “craft bar” part of the restaurant’s name, it’s no surprise to find a range of artisan beers on tap or in bottles and cans. There’s even a Beer Bible guide to help you find a fruity, malty, sweet or bitter brew to your liking. Wines by the glass and bottle are also available, as are specialty cocktails, from pumpkin martinis to a variety of fruity crushes. 

Our server, clad in a black shirt and jeans, was as eager as a bouncy puppy, filling our water glasses before we even swallowed the contents and checking on us often. I think we horrified him, though, with all the food we ate.

The portions are huge—from the true-to-their-name “shareables” to the entrées and desserts. Executive chef William Wallen has a good grasp on creating updated versions of casual American cuisine. 

We started with a Mount Everest of nachos, stacked with crunchy, house-made chips, freshly made salsa and guacamole, and jalapeño slices, all glazed with a silky, three-cheese sauce. You can also jazz up the mound with chicken, beef brisket or pulled pork.

We also nibbled on a tennis-ball-size round of house-made hummus with scoopers like warm pita triangles, assorted crackers and raw vegetables, including crisp cucumbers and carrots. We were a little puzzled by the sprinkling of feta, though it did bring a tang to the whole affair. 

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Other small plates include bacon corn dogs, sliders, Cajun shrimp and fried pickles. Salads range from Caesar to chopped.

Brussels sprout salad with pecans, blue cheese and bacon served on mixed greens.

Don’t expect the pacing of a fine-dining establishment. We had only begun to dig into our appetizers when our main meals appeared, taking up a lot of table real estate. The roasted veg sandwich was worth the dish juggling. A warm ciabatta was stuffed with a marinated portobello, red pepper and eggplant finished with soft mozzarella cheese. The thick, home-style potato chips were a pleasant, salty partner. If diners prefer, they can substitute another side, like parm-truffle fries or tater tots, for an extra $2. 

My Baltimore-born taste buds were especially appreciative of the Smith Island mac and cheese, which was laced with lump crab, sprinkled with toasted panko bread crumbs and, most of all, redolent with Old Bay seasoning. We could only make a dent in the portion, but we were quite happy to have leftovers the next day.

By then, our waiter was sure we were finished since we had already packed up four to-go boxes. Not quite. We were ready for dessert. He seemed visibly relieved when we ordered the chocolate Elvis. “That’s one of the smallest,” he told us. The concoction is as decadent as it sounds, with a moist chocolate-cake base, bananas Foster in the middle and a gooey peanut-butter buttercream layer dabbed with fluffy whipped cream and a squiggle of chocolate sauce, all packed into a clear glass. 

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Other sweets include “chef’s gone mad dessert nachos,” a nonalcoholic strawberry martini featuring cheesecake and fresh fruit, a warm peach cobbler and a tempting Ms. Trunchbull’s chocolate cake with four layers. Hint: You really do want to split these with your companions.

Co-owners Lee Mikles and Jim O’Donoghue

The restaurant, which opened in July, is the brainchild of two UD alums, Lee Mikles and Jim O’Donoghue, who envisioned opening a place with interesting food in an environment where diners didn’t have to dress up. “We talked about it forever,” Mikles says. “The timing was just right, and the location came up.”

UD parents will feel comfortable there when visiting their collegians. For everyone else, this is a casual spot that will feed you well. Another bonus is a parking lot in a parking-challenged area. It’s a win-win, no matter what game is playing on the TVs.

270 E. Main St., Newark, 737-2931,  |  PRICES: Appetizers $6–$13; burgers and sandwiches $9–$12; entrees $16–$19.  |  RECOMMENDED DISHES: OMG nachos, roasted veg sandwich, Smith Island mac and cheese.

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