I’ve wanted to try the Woods House Historic Pub in Hazelwood since it opened somewhat daringly during the first year of the pandemic. The establishment bills itself as “a traditional pub with a Scottish accent,” and having grown up in northern England with an extensive family in Scotland, I was naturally intrigued.
Pittsburgh, like all U.S. cities, has its share of Irish- and Scottish-themed pubs, but most are essentially American bars that sell Guinness on tap and serve cottage pie listed misleadingly as shepherd’s pie (cottage pie is made from ground beef and shepherd’s pie contains ground lamb). But the painstaking restoration of an 18th-century stone home as the site for Woods House gave me hope the owners may have worked equally hard at recreating Scottish cuisine.
Visually, Woods House fully captures the character of a public house. From the outside, it’s an unassuming homestead that could blend into any average village throughout the British Isles. Inside, thick stone walls studded with small windows and low-set exposed rafters frame a small bar area with limited dining capacity. While we enjoyed our meal under the mild evening sun from our seats on the patio (not a guaranteed experience in a true Scottish setting), it would be worth another visit during Pittsburgh’s harsh winter season to enjoy the cozy effect pulled off so well inside. The bar, I’m happy to report, was stocked with an admirable selection of Scottish whiskies to complete this anticipated experience.
But the food, while good, can hardly be described as authentically Scottish. A few entries are plainly English (bangers and mash, Scotch eggs — yes, a Yorkshire creation despite the misleading name), one is Welsh (leek and potato soup) and, another, fish and chips, is a popular favorite throughout Britain. The seafood items, salmon and mussels, would be welcome elements of any Scottish menu, but the descriptions hint at continental preparations and pairings.
Hoping to critique the food at least in part by its Scottish authenticity, I opted for fish and chips. This working-class favorite is, in any case, a staple of coastal towns all around the UK, and some of the best I’ve had have been served up north of the English border. It seems worth pointing out here that fish and chips, despite its legendary standing in British cuisine, is thought to have been first introduced to London by Jewish immigrants from Portugal. It seems fair, then, to treat this as an adopted British dish open to new exportations and adaptations.
But then again, let me contradict myself. I have yet to order a serving of fish and chips in the U.S. that hasn’t turned out to be fish and French fries, and would lavishly praise any outlet that bucks this trend. I placed my order at Woods House nursing a mild hope this would be the one — but alas.
Still, the french fries were excellent. Hot, crisp, fluffy inside, and tastefully seasoned. They were exquisite when dipped in the homemade tartar sauce, which allowed just the right balance of dill and lemon to cut through a rich, creamy mayonnaise base. But they would have been much better served in their natural environment beside a steaming hamburger oozing with cheese, mustard, and pickles.
Chips — that is, British chip shop chips — should be almost opposite in profile to the sleek French fry: thick, lightly golden, and just a little bit mushy while holding their form. They’re not inherently superior to other varieties of fried potato, but they’re an irreplaceable part of the fish and chip experience which I would hope to find at any restaurant proclaiming authentic Scottish fare.
So much for chips, how about that fish? Here, Woods House holds its own against any Glaswegian chippy. The batter is light and crisp with a rich gold hue. Beneath the batter, the fish is so juicy and tender, it flirts with rawness.
It was a joy to wash this down with a pint of Tennent’s lager — not the most remarkable beer on the market, but distinctive and hard to source outside of Scotland. Its mild, malty profile is not far from an American pilsner, and pairs well with a heavily fried entree.
I rounded off the meal with a serving of creme brulee that was frankly disappointing. The custard carried a great flavor, but enjoying this required hacking through a slab of burnt glazing the depth of a coin. It was an unfortunate ending to an otherwise pleasant experience.
To be clear, while not meaningfully Scottish, the food was good. The setting was even better. And I’m looking forward to returning when the weather turns, allowing the rugged stone interior to work its mystical warming charm. And let’s not forget that dram of whisky.
The Woods House Historic Pub. 4604 Monongahela St., Hazelwood. woodshousepgh.com