Location: 1740 Route 228, Cranberry. 724-742-2337
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. noon-9 p.m.
Prices: Starters $7-9; sandwiches $6-11; entrees $14-35
Fare: Pub grub and steaks
Atmosphere: Ersatz Tudor, with a faux Irish pub
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated sections
Concept restaurants usually don't do much for us. Whatever the gimmick, it almost always seems to overshadow the actual food. But when we heard about a place in Cranberry where the gimmick is grilling your own steaks, we quickly warmed to the idea. At Hereford and Hops, the concept actually is the food.
This mini-chain -- three locations so far -- specializes, as its name suggests, in steaks and microbrews. A large bar is cordoned off behind a faux Irish-pub storefront, while the rest of the sprawling restaurant is a vast interconnected series of faux-Tudor dining rooms, complete with half-timbering and wrought-iron chandeliers, punctuated by the occasional gas fireplace. The strategy is effective in creating an illusion of coziness in an establishment large enough to seat a considerable crowd; after slipping into the last apparent space in the parking lot, we were sure we'd encounter a wait for a table, but were seated right away.
The menu caters to a broad audience with offerings ranging from predictable pub grub through some appetizing salads and sandwiches to a variety of upscale entrees. Then there's the steak page, which, like any specialty menu, takes some time to parse.
There is a full range of simply prepared cuts; a couple of specialty items (including a stunt dish: finish your 50-ounce steak, potatoes, salad and Texas toast in 75 minutes, and get a gift certificate for more); "queen size" portions for more delicate appetites; and the grill-your-own section. For those who choose this option, a charcoal grill pit the size of a king-size bed occupies its own alcove near the restaurant entrance. A cooler nearby is fully furnished with half-dozen cuts of beef to choose from. The menu proclaims that a "grillmaster" is available to assist the intimidated.
Each dining room is graced by its own salad bar, presumably to spare diners from having to traipse out of cell-phone range from their tables in search of fresh greens. But the scant selection of 1970s-vintage choices, including sliced black olives and industrial-looking bacon bits, led us to think that a single, centrally located but better-supplied bar would have been a wiser investment. So we skipped the salad bar entirely and ordered a spinach salad with warm bacon dressing off the menu. Good call. Each element on the plate -- firm hard-boiled egg, chewy bacon, herbed croutons, red onion, bleu cheese and, of course, fresh green spinach -- was well-prepared and in good balance with the dish as a whole. We appreciated, for instance, that the onion had been sautéed just enough to temper its sharpness.
We also enjoyed the baked-potato bar, especially the house horseradish topping, and the bread, which was served warm, on boards. The braided rolls were stretchy inside and crusty outside with a pleasant, slightly sweet flavor baked in.
To Jason, it was all a prelude to the steak. He and a dining companion went to the grill room and agreed to try both the New York strip and a T-bone, taking on the challenges of managing the bone (which retards the cooking of the meat) on one hand, and coddling a very thick boneless cut on the other. Melted butter was provided for brushing before grilling, and a variety of seasonings offered alternatives for customizing flavor. An impressive mound of charcoal created more heat than most home grills can, making achievable grill marks worthy of beef commercials. In the end, the strip ended up a bit rare, but with no one to blame but himself, Jason tucked in. The quality of the meat was obvious: Even undercooked, it was plenty tender with a round, full, delicious flavor. The T-bone turned out just right, and tasted just as good.
Angelique chose to let the kitchen cook her prime rib. Unfortunately, it overshot her order of medium-rare and delivered the meat fully medium-well. Still, the inherent flavor of the excellent meat shone through, and the salty-savory character of the jus was fine.
In addition to steaks, we wanted to try one of Hereford and Hops' sandwiches, so we ordered a Wicked Pulled Pork, served on a big, crusty Kaiser roll with real grill marks. The wickedness came from plenteous slices of assertive jalapeño pepper. Broad-cut fries were crispy on the outside, fluffy within: pretty close to perfect.
Unfortunately, some key aspects of Hereford and Hops fall into the "needs improvement" column. The kitchen utterly failed to coordinate the chef-cooked steaks with the customer-cooked ones; the salad bars need revamping; and overdone prime rib is a disservice to the steer that gave its life. Still, the menu as a whole is credible, and the restaurant deserves credit for some of the best-quality beef you can get outside of the pricey steakhouses Downtown.