I'm not generally a fan of bars, but I am a fan of The Old Toad. Why is that? There is beer on the menu, but you won't find Budweiser. You can get a meal, and it actually tastes good. There are singles looking to hook up, but there are also couples in their 60s, and Eastman students getting ready for trivia night. So The Old Toad is a bar, but one that provides a quality, down-to-earth experience to people from all walks of life.
A traditional British pub that bills itself as "a pub from over there, over here," The Old Toad has more than 250 beers to choose from: on tap, in bottles, and in casks. There are hard ciders, too, along with a host of scotches, whiskeys, bourbons, wines, and ports. You can spend a good long time considering just the drink offerings. If you can't make a decision, the waiters — many of them students from the United Kingdom — will help point you in the right direction.
The food menu is filled with the kinds of staples you'd expect at a British pub. There is nothing fancy or fussy to be found — that's the point — but there are a few flourishes. The burger special rotates weekly; on a recent visit, a turkey-cranberry burger ($11), served with a side of fries, was topped with brie and mixed greens. Turkey burgers can be dry and bland, but this patty was moist and tender, with the dried cranberries providing pockets of sweet tartness. The mild brie added richness, and the bun was soft with a thin, light crust.
The fish in the fish and chips (large $12.50; small $8) is haddock; it is firm but tender, with a delicate flake and opaque whiteness. If you taste the fish without its breading, you'll notice a slight fishy taste. Haddock should be gently sweet; this is a minor flaw in the dish as a whole. The batter is made with the Old Toad's Nut Brown ale, lending the coating a light malt flavor. Once fried, it puffs up, and turns crisp and light. The oil fries the batter but not the fish, which steams inside its shell of a coating.
The chips — what we call fries — are thickly cut. When they're done well, they're crisp on the outside, soft in the middle, and ready to be doused in malt vinegar or dipped in ketchup. On occasion, they're limp with too much grease.
With the fish and chips comes a choice of garden or mushy peas. This is a no-brainer: go for the mushy peas. Mashed like potatoes, with a few untouched peas thrown in for texture, these are creamy and sweet. There's a hint of something extra, too — maybe mint, a traditional addition. If so, it's subtly done at the Toad.
Shepherd's pie ($12) is filling and comforting, the kind of meal to eat on a cold winter's night. Ground beef — not lamb, as might be found in an Irish version — and vegetables are mixed with gravy, and topped with a thin layer of mashed potatoes. It's then covered — and I do mean covered — in cheddar cheese that browns at the edges. The toasted spots cling to side of the oval casserole dish, and leave you something to pick on after you've polished off the rest. This is also served with fries, and a few "let's brighten up the plate a bit" steamed vegetables that should be left as decoration.
For those avoiding meat, there are several options on the menu. The curried chickpea burger served with fries ($9.50) is especially good. It has a surprising kick, incorporating jalapeno into the burger and chipotle peppers into the mayo; the pineapple chutney also has a bite. The heat is contrasted with a bit of sweetness: apple and carrot in the patty, as well as the aforementioned pineapple. It's an interesting and welcome selection on the menu, and wouldn't be out of place at a gastro pub or American-style bistro.
The Old Toad Drunken Cheddar ($5) is a vegetable soup fortified with pale ale and finished with, to quote the menu, "the best extra mature English Cheddar." Full of chunks of celery, carrot, and onion, it's a hearty soup, but not a stew or a cream soup. The cheddar's flavor stands tall, but its appearance does not: there is a curdled look to the broth. Still, it is tasty, and the accompanying wedge of a pale, soft baguette encourages dunking.
If there's a lackluster dish on the menu, it's the Mayfair ($8). More traditionally known as Welsh rarebit, it's a blend of cheddar, brown ale, and mustard slathered on slices of bread and grilled until golden brown — essentially an open-face grilled-cheese sandwich. When done correctly, Welsh rarebit is fantastic: sharp melted cheese, kicky mustard, and crunchy buttered bread. At the Old Toad, it's more like the cheese-topped loaves you can order at a multitude of pizza joints. The soft baguette (the same served with the drunken cheddar soup) doesn't provide contrast to the softness of the melted cheese. The cheddar and mustard are muted and it's hard to pick up on the earthiness of the ale. It isn't bad, it's just bland.
It's a small misstep in an otherwise solid, reliable menu. The Old Toad is one of those few and far between places that will appeal to a variety of people, without pandering to the lowest common denominator nor puffing up with pride like a blowfish. You can imagine the kid who turns his nose up at anything more complex than PB&J, the eye-rolling food fancier demanding authenticity (I don't personally know anyone like that...), the eater whose night out usually means dinner at Applebee's, and the beer-and-spirits snob, each finding something to appreciate and enjoy. To provide that kind of experience is like walking a tightrope, but the Old Toad does it well.