Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks

The so-often-mentioned-by-me “golden triangle of beer” in Central PA has become a trapezoid. That is my official position after spending Saturday night at Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks in Millheim, PA.  Tim Bowser, an owner, joked with me that perhaps it is now more like the Bermuda Triangle, which may be true as people taking the time to visit Selin’s Grove, Bullfrog and Otto’s will be drawn into the center to take in Elk Creek.

The PLCB came through late last Friday, and Elk Creek had a quiet opening.  Sam Komlenic reported the details of his visit and tour to Lew Bryson, but because of a heavy work and vacation schedule last week and my focus on Christmas shopping and Firkin Friday at Selin’s Grove, I wasn’t keeping up on my reading.  I learned about it via text message this weekend, and just happen to be staying less than 30 miles away so I jumped on the opportunity and my parents came right along.

Knowing the area well, I was surprised by the metropolitan flair of this place (the last great restaurant in the area – The Hummingbird Room – closed in 2005.) It’s a few doors down from the quaint Millheim Hotel where, at least when I was growing up, the salad bar is in a claw-foot bathtub (another interesting fact – this circa 1794 hotel is haunted by the mistress of President Millard Fillmore.) It, too is a fun spot to dine, but it’s charming in a small-town kind of way.

From the large windows of the Elk Creek Cafe, I watched at least three Amish horse and buggies pass by the other two restaurants on the main street – Brownies Valley Tavern and The Pizza Shop. Their polished black boxes connected by strong wood and leather strappings to a single horse offered a glimpse of women and children wrapped in blankets and men in suspenders and black dress hats. I challenge you to name another brewpub where you can see that!

Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks is located in the former Equinox Cafe location – it can’t be missed in such a small town, but just in case you decide to visit, the intersection is routes PA-45 and PA-445 (the only stoplight in town) and the address is 100 W. Main Street.  The street view is full floor-to-ceiling windows and the brightness of the interior lights up the downtown. It has a beautiful yellow glow, which reflects off the honey wood floors, and colorful displays artwork throughout the restaurant add an interesting aspect to the otherwise simple decor. There is a real feeling of openness to the restaurant – we weren’t crowded, although the tables were nearly full.

Elk Creek - Exterior at Night     Elk Creek Selections

We did not sit at the bar, but it looked very nice with the handmade cherry and iron barstools.  The beer menu was on the table, and a chalkboard presentation of the beers and specials was on the wall. The food menu was printed just for the weekend, and I assume this will be a trend, as they feature fresh, local products (seen in italics where I’ve copied the menu at the end of this post.) In addition to “fresh and local”, this place features some of my other favorite buzzwords: organic, smoke-free and vegan. Chef Mark Johnson describes the his preparation style as Nouveau Dutchie Cuisine.

Brewer Tim Yarrington, who was dining two tables away with his family (but I was too shy/polite to interrupt them), has outdone the Penns Valley beer scene with his nice selection of ales. I didn’t ask if there are plans to put on a cask, but heard there are plans to expand the number and variety of offerings. I also am left wondering about the ABVs and IBUs…  Five beers were on tap yesterday, served in 5 oz glasses for $1 or pints for $3.95.  The selections were:

Winkleblink Ale– a light, perhaps kolsch-style, ale named for a nearby mountain. On the map, you will see it as Winklebleck Mountain in the Bald Eagle State Forest (the Mid-State Trail crosses this mountain when hiking from Hairy John’s picnic area to Raymond B. Winter State Park), but because of a lighted tower, the locals know it as “Winkleblink Mountain.”  The name is a bit esoteric, and should they ever look to rename it, let me offer up “Winklebleck Light.”
Great Blue Heron Pale Ale – an American Pale Ale that didn’t quite meet my expectations for flavor. It was lighter in color and lacking in the hop flavor and aroma that I expect in a Pale. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it – I did – I just didn’t like it enough to indulge in a pint.
Elk Creek Copper Ale – this is the kind of flavor I’m looking for in a session beer. It had a stronger hop profile than the Pale, and the darker color was visually more appealing.  Toffee sweetness complimented the floral aroma.  Elk Creek, by the way, is an important area waterway which once hosted mills and now provides recreation through kayaking and fly fishing.
Brookie Brown Ale– the big surprise of the night! Pop usually avoids browns (too sweet!), but based on the description, decided to try it. His first pint was a mis-pour of the Copper and he had to send it back, so when the Brown arrived looking much like the Porter, we suspected another mistake.  Not so! This did not have the hop aroma or full-bodied roastiness of the porter, but the chocolate and caramel malts kept the flavor strong and the color dark. It was an excellent and atypical brown ale.
Poe Paddy Porter– nostalgia abounded in the name alone, and then we tasted this beer based on Tim Yarrington’s GABF award winning porter recipe. It is a perfect porter – dark, smooth and roasty with an extra hint of hops in the aroma and the finish. It could only be better if only it were on cask…  I had my pint of porter with desert, and it really complimented the bread pudding (a small slice of bread pudding (which didn’t have the taste or texture of old bread!) topped with raisin sauce, citrus zest and vanilla ice cream.) Poe Paddy is a favorite local State Park on Penns Creek and near the Paddy Mountain Railroad Tunnel, which is a favorite Mid-State Trail day hike or bike ride for our family.

Our meals were just as good as the atmosphere and the beer. We started with the chicken liver toast – a lovely pate preparation best shared by the three of us. It was a wonderful treat that melted in my mouth. Pop had the Steak Frites (a pasture-raised grilled strip steak served with steak butter and  a generous portion of fries with aioli.) Nana had the pasture-raised burger, also served with the hand-cut fries. I had the potato-crusted wild Alaskan salmon, which was balanced over roast beet cubes and topped with horseradish sour cream and chives. It was perfect in flavor, but the presentation was lacking (dramatic, yet it looked lonely on such a big plate – a few greens or something scattered on the side would make all the difference!)

Our only real complaint was the waitress assigned to our table. The other wait staff seemed to be very friendly and efficient, but ours was inattentive, extremely soft-spoken, and generally not prepared to work with the public.

Two things I neglected to do is find out a phone number for this place, and whether or not they fill growlers. All of my searches for phone numbers come up with numbers for the Equinox (it rings busy at all times), and two personal phone numbers which I found on things like the State Inspection report. I’ll want to know those things eventually.

If I lived near Millheim, I would visit at every opportunity.  As a beer traveler, I hope to get back as often as possible.

TAVERN TAPAS

  • Cream of Broccoli + Parsley w/ Cheddar Soup
  • Elk Creek Flatbread + Hummus w/ Kalama Olives (vg)
  • Belgian Style Hand-Cut Fries + Elk CreekAioli or Tofu Mayo (vg)
  • Olive Salad Bruschetta (vg)
  • Mac + Frank + Fontina
  • House-Cured Gravlox + Poppy Crackers w/ Dijon Drizzle
  • Local Apple, Bacon, Cheddar + Baby Lettuce Salad
  • Roast Beet Salad w/ Toasted Caraway Vinaigrette (vg)
  • Mixed Baby Greens, choice of Vinaigrettes (vg) 

ELK CREEK ENTREES

  • Pasture-Raised Burger + Hand-Cut Fries w/ Elk Creek Aioli
  • Roasted Pepper + Marinated Portabella Sandwich w/ Hummus Mayo
  • Valley Ham + Swiss on Gemelli Ciabatta
  • Fillet of Beef Salad w/ Grilled Gemelli Ciabatta, Mixed Lettuces + Roasted Peppers
  • Bucatini w/ Elk Creek Puttanesca (vg)
  • Pasture-Raised Grilled Strip Steak + Fries w/ Elk Creek Aioli + Steak Butter
  • Butter-Basted Over the Moon Farm Chicken w/ Broccoli + House-cured Hog Jowl + Potato Gnochi 
  • Tender Callahan Pork Shoulder + Pork Belly w/ Butter Beans + Roasted Root Vegetable
  • Skillet Trout w/ Crispy Potatoes in a Brown Butter, Capers, + Lemon Pan Sauce  
  • Potato-Crusted Wild Alaskan Salmon, Horseradish Sour Cream + Chives w/ Roast Beets
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12 responses

  1. Just wanted to make a correction, price-wise. The Elk Creek does small samplers, but you can also order a 10 oz. for $2.00 or a pint for $3.50. They have a new batch of Copper out, which differs slightly from the first. The guys tending bar are often the brewers, so they’re definitely worth having word with, very knowledgeable. The waitstaff is also getting better, and if service is a bit slow the food is worth the wait (and who complains if they’ve got a nice beer in hand?). All in all a lovely place to visit and I (as a Valley gal) am very happy to have them open there in Millheim. Thanks for the nice review!

  2. Just got back from the place and had a blast. The place was bumping, but the staff got us right in and offered us a beer while we waited for the table. My party tried all the beers and the porter was a fav and the Olde Millheim. Check this place out for a unique experience and good times. But, beware if you venture into other bars in town–don’t play “Jesus Saves” by Slayer. The locals will get up and leave.

  3. Thanks, A1-Zero! Sounds like Olde Millheim might be the Seasonal Strong Ale? Glad you had a good time. Yeah, I’m thinking anything by Slayer might be a bad choice in those parts…my suggestion is don’t venture out to other bars in town. The best beer is at Elk Creek!

  4. very impressed. Wife and I were web recommended to millheim hotel restaurant. We drove there only to be met by a waitress talking with two drunks at a table and a second later another unsavory drunk grabbed the waitress by the arm. Hesitantly, we entered a dirty worn dining room with a few small tables, disarayed covering. With only a view of the noisy bar, we no sooner sat down that we bolted for the door. Walking to our car we found elk creek along with its bright cheeryentry filled with a mature and upscale crowd. We were nicely greeted by tim and seated along a quiet wall. Quickly serviced by lisa our frowns went to smiles. We started with pita n hummus…perfect. Our salmon and chop was served creatively with sauces from the gods. The Pinot grigio was chilled and fresh. As a lawyer representing restaurants,I give elk creek an easy A.
    I recommend tim consider adding a thin calamare appetizer to the menu along with vanilla n raspberry syrup sodas. for those who don’t drink. Oh… A few slices of French bread with the meal would have been nice. We will be back!!’ good job.

  5. Visited Sat. night 5/3/08 and had a fabulous evening! Greeted by Tim as soon as my friend and I walked in the door…place was packed – food came quickly – had the salmon and it was great, beer was great… Nice upscale, friendly crowd. You could tell that people really liked being there… An acoustic duo from NY started out the night’s music followed up by another 5 piece group…loved the couple (in their 80s!!) that were dancing in the corner. So nice to see a real music-loving crowd. Will definitely be back with more friends, esp. when there is good music. $6 cover for the music, but money well-spent for such a nice evening. We’re from Boalsburg/SC, and there is nothing like this in SC. I predict a huge success for the Elk Creek Cafe. We will be back!!!

  6. My first visit on Saturday for the Chris Byrne CD release will not be my last. Tim has a winner in little ol’ Millheim. I had the Elk Creek Stout and was very pleasd with the flavor and texture. The turkey and turnip greens over rice soup(!) was excellent. I was lucky enough to get just baked sourdough bread from the oven. I can’t wait to go back to try other items and hear Ronnie Burage on June 1. By the way, the quartet with Dr. E was terrific, too.

  7. It was my first experience at the Elk Creek. I was almost flaborgasted. The beer and food were so great I left feeling so content. A suggestion I might ask is if we could add a Filet or a good Lobster dish. It seems the clientel is there. I think you should way extend the menu. You should do some fine fare. It draws an upscale crowd. So lets offter some good upscale food. Other than the limited menu all was great. I think this business will thrive and succeed beyond your expectations. All i asked is put a more extensive menu of more choices besides the bar food part of it. A good filet mingon would be great even if it was to be 30 dollars if I travel that far I would pay for it with a good locally grown baked potatoe. Just food for thought.

  8. Pingback: Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks Blog Stats « Pub Crawlin’

  9. Stumbling across this a year (plus) after it was first published brings back memories of the first days when the Elk Creek was opened. Being a local (living about 5 miles east of the Elk Creek) I’ve frequented the establishment quite often over the past year. Attracted to the microbrews of Ottos and Bullfrog, I was ecstatic to learn that a microbrew was opening in my backyard. Great food, awesome beer, and toe-tapping live entertainment are just the top three reasons to visit the Elk Creek. I am happy to report that after a year in business, the only thing that has changed at the Elk Creek Cafe and Aleworks is that the beer selection has increased, but the regular brews have stayed consistent, a refreshing surprise in any local micrbrew.

    • Scott, I completely agree! Everything has remained great and the place has pulled together really nicely. Despite the service on my first visit, we have had outstanding service on all future visits. Everyone who works there is so nice and they take great care of us as customers. The menu is so fabulous, and the beer is really pleasing.

      Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks is now selling pint glasses and mugs, and has had logo growlers for a few months. They are now open on Sunday until 5 PM, which is a bonus. We are so lucky to have this place in the heart of PA!

  10. I really wanted to like this place. It was a busy Saturday night and we were asked if we wanted to sit in the music area or non-music. Chose non-music and were sat at a table (long) with another couple that had already started their meal. We had two chairs between my wife and the other couple, but it was just “weird”. We chose 3 of the appetizers and a sampler of beer. I don’t know if I was disappointed in the seating situation, but I thought the beers were off. They reminded my of my early days of homebrewing. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but they all had an aftertaste that had a “plastic” taste to it.

    The couple left the end of our table and then the hostess asked if she could sit 5 more people down at our table…. They would have been in the seats right next to us. Maybe I am a little ignorant, but I was flabbergasted that we were put in that situation. Buy new tables, separate them slightly. My wife and I had looked forward to a quiet night together away from the kids and we felt like it was ruined by the Elk Creek Cafe managers trying to squeeze as much as they could out of the seating situation.
    Food was above average, service was good, beer was poor and the seating situation was by far the worst that I have seen at any restaurant in all of my 40 years.

    I do not plan on returning. Give me Ottos, Selinsgrove, Victory, Penn or just about any other brewpup in Pennsylvania.

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