Labour is expensive. In the restaurant industry, a miscalculation about projected guest volumes can result in too much staff on shift, eroding already thin margins and rendering an evening’s service a veritable waste of time from a revenue perspective.
In the U.K., pubs have things more or less figured out. A capable bartender will slog drinks and take food orders from patrons right at the bar. Patrons are (usually) expected to return glassware between rounds and the bartender will run food but beyond that staffing remains minimal. The system works and the dining audience is familiar with the drill.
In Canada, we’re not used to that sort of thing, really, outside of fast food venues. We are accustomed to being waited on, to having our needs anticipated and swiftly met, and when this does not happen, we express our displeasure via diminished gratuities or reduced patronage.
On a recent Monday evening I took the family to nearby Hearthstone Tap & Forno for some casual eats and a farewell pint or two with a couple of longtime North Shore friends, Kath and Mike. A sandwich board placed on the patio indicated that only “bar service” was available that evening. After selecting a nice table benefitting from intermittent rays of sunshine, we delved into the menu.
I recall the lengthy period between the announcement of Hearthstone’s opening and its actual opening. Just like in the cases of Nicli Antica, Lift, Tacomio, Tequila Cucina, Woods Distillery, and several other hospitality businesses that have started up in the last few years, the wait time to see the doors finally open at Hearthstone seemed interminable. I know from conversations with many operators that the bureaucratic culture surrounding food and beverage regulatory licensing on the North Shore can be painfully cumbersome.
In some cases, projected openings have been pushed back by a year or more, quickly draining financial resources and making reliable staffing next to impossible.
And yet against these odds, restaurants continue to open and enjoy tenuous success that is largely contingent on effective cost management.
I get why Hearthstone reduced its staffing on a Monday night: provided the aggregate experience can still remain positive for the diner, reduced labour is a reasonable tactic. And for the most part, our meal was a success, save for having to stare at the mountain of spent plates for the rest of our visit once the eating portion was done.
I have to commend the one bartender and one food runner that made meal service possible at all (and of course the kitchen crew for their role, though they can hardly be expected to facilitate front-of-house operations in addition to manning the line). The patio nearly filled at one point during our visit, while inside, a steady flow of guests at the bar came and went. I estimate Hearthstone saw 40 guests in the window of our visit. I mention all this because I think some broader context is important when judging a restaurant for what may seem like an unusual service approach.
Some familiar Hearthstone favourites certainly contributed to the meal’s overall success. A starter of freshly made popcorn seasoned with brewing hops and vinegar salt was a comforting kick-off, as were the so-called Tofino Brussels Sprouts, which were fried with apple cider vinegar until caramelized, and then topped with crispy panko and loads of finely grated Parmesan cheese.
The popcorn had a decidedly adult flavour to it, with a tart bitterness that, not surprisingly, makes it an ideal beer snack. I had a pint of Taylor’s Special Bitter, a malt-forward, citra hop-lifted English extra special bitter-style beer, a nicely balanced, toasty but still refreshing pint. I would recommend grabbing a sample of this before it is gone as it is part of Hearthstone’s limited release offerings. My wife DJ had a pink-hued berry sour, a bracingly refreshing beer that needs to consumed as cold as possible, in my opinion, for optimal enjoyment.
I have heard it said that Brussels sprouts, like craft breweries, must surely have reached their saturation point. They appear on almost every casual eatery’s menu, it seems (unless deep-fried cauliflower is on offer in its stead) and surely the appetite for them has waned.
To this I offer the idea that, like the craft beer scene, the wheat will ultimately be separated from the chaff and the best iterations will prevail. In a marketplace glut with mediocre sprouts, stars shine that much brighter and Hearthstone’s sprouts glimmered radiantly.
Of the two versions of chicken wings we tried out – salt and pepper, and honey lime sriracha – the spicier ones were superior, the tangy, reddish, garlic-nuanced sauce once again begging for beer. With the wings we paired two of Hearthstone’s core brews (i.e. beers that are always available versus seasonal offerings): the India Pale Ale and the gluten-friendly Rizzla Rice Lager. The IPA is a textbook example of the style with a hefty hop character, mid-level maltiness, and alcohol-by-volume in the 6.5 per cent range. It is a great sipping beer, but works as a food pairing as well. The Rizzla Rice Lager is a leaner, stripped down beer that focuses on refreshment and versatility. Think of the IPA as the headlining band at a rock music festival and the lager as the music played over the sound-system in between sets; the first is impossible to ignore but may not appeal to everyone, while the second has almost universal appeal but is possible to tune out as you focus on other things.
The kids had cheeseburgers from the children’s menu while DJ and I considered a pizza from the extensive list. I have written about Hearthstone’s tasty pizzas before, so ultimately opted not to order one on this visit. If you haven’t tried a Hearthstone pizza before, I recommend doing so. The whole Hearthstone food operation hinges on the kitchen’s central feature: an imposing, white-tiled, classic wood-burning forno that produces serious depth of flavour in the flatbreads it issues.
Located at 1015 Marine Dr., North Vancouver. Hearthstonebrewery.ca 604-984-1842