81 Clinton Street, Shrewsbury, MA
Cited in the outskirts of Worcester and Shrewsbury, near areas where strange stuff happens after the sun sets, Billy’s Pub is the latest incarnation in a long line of establishments. For any film noir buff, the building will provide moments of déjà vu, guaranteed.
For what we have here is a classic American roadhouse. Over the years, the place has changed hands and names numerous times. With each successive owner, I fear the place will be stripped of its character and transformed into some chain affair.
So it was with relief that my visit to Billy’s Pub felt like a homecoming. The new owner/curator has left intact the dining room’s curve-edged ceiling, heavily varnished wainscoting and general feeling of faded glory that seems to seep from every surface. The front lounge is a bit cheerier and updated, but when my friend and I walked through the front door, the column of bar patrons scarcely turned a head to see who’d just entered.
To further the 1940’s ambiance, the dining room sported numerous old tin advertising pieces, a nod to the place’s heritage. Billy’s menu, on the other hand, was rooted firmly in the modern era. And once we sampled the cuisine, we discovered a standard of quality and flair for flavor that ignited the noir era with Disney Technicolor.
Katie, our server, was an absolute delight. Business had slacked off that freakishly cold winter night, and we were her only table. But never mind, she took our questions and teasing in easy stride and was attentive but not intrusive.
I started with a glass of Blue Point Oatmeal Stout. Actually, I was astonished to learn Billy’s had anything like this on tap and eagerly anticipated tasting it. In the minute it took Katie to walk it to the table, all trace of foamy head had vanished, and it looked just like a glass of coke. In flavor, it managed to summon up mild coffee notes, perhaps a smudge of chocolate. Call it “stout on training wheels.”
The beer really shouldn’t reflect on Billy’s; after all, they didn’t brew it. When it came to kitchen skill, critical elements such as flavor came out to shine. First example: our appetizer of Homemade Onion Rings. Rare is the proprietor who’ll admit he trucks in pre-formed frozen onion rings. It’s up to us to figure that out for ourselves. But Billy’s were homemade, no doubt.
Irregularly sliced rings of fresh, sweet onion were dipped in a made-to-order batter and deep fried to s crispy, golden brown. The onions were still a bit al dente, and the breading flaked apart when forked. Of course, I’m speculating on the assertion of “to-order,” but from my own experience, that’s the most sure-fire way to attain such a craggy texture. We loved every crunchy scrap!
And that was just the warm-up. My dining companion was lucky enough to score the last order of a daily special: Roast Pork with Mashed Potatoes. Sound mundane? Anything but! Three thick slabs of pork glistened with a peppery amber glaze and flavor that was beguiling. Where did all this spicy heat come from? Pepper? Hot sauce? Under its herb crust, the meat was juicy and tender. It was a jumbo portion with extraordinary flavor. Even the Red Bliss potatoes tasted freshly mashed.
My entree came from the menu’s modest selection of seafood entrees: Baked Scallops. Yeah, this was a staple entry on menus 30 years ago. But it seems to have faded after people got tired of overdone seafood swimming in pools of tired oil under a blanket of burned crumbs. So why did I order it? Research; to see if the chef could handle the basics.
Billy’s chef understands all that pain and brought Baked Scallops back to basics. These sea scallops were the most tender I’ve had in years ~ perhaps even a touch underdone ~ with just a trace of buttery broth and a scatter of golden crumb topping. Under such deft treatment, their fragile flavor shone through. The portion was generous in size and served piping hot.
The mid-20th century popularity of roadhouses was not based on quality dining. And, somehow, I doubt those customers demanded much in the area of flavor. These were rooms marinated in cigarette smoke and cheap whiskey. Nostalgia aside, I’ll eagerly take the Billy’s Pub reboot, hands down.
Still, sitting in that big empty room, I couldn’t help thinking of The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues”:
Yeah, keep your eyes on the road,
Your hands upon the wheel.
Keep your eyes on the road,
Your hands upon the wheel
Yeah, we’re goin’ to the Roadhouse,
Gonna have a real good time
By Bernie Whitmore