Just south of Philadelphia's Historic District, a short walk from the subway stop at 16th and Locust, stands Monk's Cafe beer emporium. Inside the tight, narrow buildings are some of the best flavors to ever leave Belgium. The small front bar and surrounding lounge are standing room only on weekend nights. Following the winding hallway toward the rear leads to another small but well-stocked bar. A full liquor selection surrounds the mirrored bar back. Under the 10-foot ceiling of dark wooden beams are ceramic steins that populate the lounge's walls. Dim light glows from the "electric "candles" and the hanging lamps. The beige painted walls hold tapestries and Belgian beer prints. With bench seating along the wooden walls, the small wooded tables are rearranged as desired by the patrons, the wooden chairs sliding easily across the wood floor.
Three four-tap towers pour the fine selection of Belgian ales, while a lone beer engine offers a local cask-conditioned brew. The great bottled selection includes famous Belgian brands and North American interpretations of those traditional styles. Favorites include Allegash, Chimay, Chouffe, Affligem, Moinette, Vuuve, Lindemans, Delerium Tremins, Ommegan, Flying Fish, Kwak, Corsendonk, Duvel, Unibroue and Leffe. Some custom glassware accompanies the pours but, unlike in Belgium, it tends to disappear out the front door. Christmas holiday beers include Boon Marriage Parfait Frambroise, Corsendonk Christmas Ale, Delerium Noel, Dupont Les Bon Vieux, La Binchoise Noel, St. Feullien Cuvee Noel and Stille Nacht. The beer menu contains the latest specials but no prices! A 25-ounce specialty bottle of Dog Fish Head will run $12.
The Yards ESA (cask-conditioned) is a hazy dark amber with a fine white head, light esters, smooth mouthfeel, light-to-medium body, very slight sulfury character, with a short, dry maltiness and underlying hops. Great balance. The hazy brown draught St. Feullien Brune begins with estery/raisiny aromas that lead to a very creamy mouthfeel with a rich and complex malty flavor. The Corsendonk Christmas Ale is dark brown, with a medium body, lasting head, and a powerful hops and malt presence. Offering a smooth mouthfeel throughout, a licorice note comes through before the slight alcohol presence builds into the finish. The Kwak is a golden color with a thick white head and lace. This medium-bodied brew hints of alcoholic strength early in its aroma but the malty flavor is well balanced and goes down very smoothly. Most pints run $4.50 to $6.50.
The Monk's Beer Bible ($3) is available at the bar to offer customers "a 12-page guide to Belgian beers and selections." The food menu begins with Starter priced form $3 to $10 and include Grilled Rodenoctopus, Tuna Steaks, Garden Burgers and Chicken. Sandwiches run $6 to $7, including a tasty and lean Chicken & Apple Sausage. Salads such as the Monk's Duck Salad list for $3 to $10. Eight entrees run from $10 to $19 and include Trout Saison and Lapin a la Gueze. A wide Mussels selection ranges from $9 to $15 and touts Rodenback Mussels. A great treat is the Chimay cheese that features a medium consistency with a smooth, almost buttery character and a very nice mellow flavor.
Monk's offers a fine selection of quality Belgian beers and the crowd clearly appreciates it. Happy hour is equally popular with men and women. The owner pays personal visits to Belgium annually in order to stay abreast of the beer situation and learn of new beers that Philadelphia would like to taste. Monthly special events include beer dinners and talks from noted beer writers such as Stephen Beaumont. The steps in the hallway would make navigating the layout with a wheelchair problematic but the good natured crowd would surely help out as required. As Philadelphia's craft beer industry works to build a presence in the city, Monk's Cafe offers them a place to showcase their boldest offerings with customers who appreciate the best that Belgium has to export.
Reviewed by Tom Ciccateri -