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Pub, Unchained

by B.A. Nilsson on March 26, 2014

 

O’Toole’s Restaurant & Pub, 1814 Central Ave. (Kohl’s Plaza), Albany, 464-1200, otoolesalbany.com. Serving Mon-Thu 11:30-11, Fri-Sat 11:30-midnight, Sun noon-11. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: pub fare

Entrée price range: $8 (fish and chips) to $22 (surf and turf)

Ambiance: sports bar/pub

I’d been avoiding the place for years. Any possible convenience of chain restaurants is offset by their stultifying sameness. When O’Toole’s opened many years ago in Albany’s Kohl’s Plaza, I figured it to be yet another cookie-cutter joint.

But something unusual happened a few years later. The Toronto-based chain let go of its American units—of which there were about a hundred—and most of them closed. Others, such as the units in Albany and Queensbury, became independent.

My wife and I gave the place an awful test. We showed up on a Saturday. In the restaurant business, there are days of the week, and then there’s Saturday. A different kind of clientele emerges. The kind for which chains are a cradle, and who may not see much of a difference between O’Toole’s and an Applebee’s.

Which means O’Toole’s has to work that much harder to keep those customers—as well as the rest-of-the-week crowd—returning. It does so with an easygoing, unsurprising menu that’s priced incredibly low, and a personalized approach to service.

There’s a hint of Canada still on the menu. Poutine is smuggled into the Fries section as “cheese and gravy fries” ($7). But you also can get your fries beer battered ($3), waffle cut ($5), thin cut or steak wedges ($4 each), gluten free ($4) or topped with cheese, bacon bits and sour cream ($8).

Buffalo-style chicken wings are touted as a specialty, with a choice of sauce temperatures as well as BBQ, Garlic Parm and even (for a dollar extra) what’s termed Atomic, and which I of course couldn’t order with Ms. Don’t-Get-It-Hot in tow. Ten wings are $9, 20 are $17.50, but Mondays you get them for 50 cents apiece with a minimum order of 10. And they certainly were just fine as far as I was concerned: crunchy-skinned, a reasonable amount of meat and the flavor of the sauce pervasive without turning the whole thing too gooey.

Other starters include nachos supreme ($10), laden with chili and cheese, jalapeno slices and sour cream; Irish nachos ($10), in which fries sub for tortilla chips and corned beef takes the place of chili; fried clams ($9), fried calamari ($12), potato skins ($8) and even a double-stuffed steak quesadilla ($11) with mozzarella cheese, spinach and sautéed onions. And most of the appetizers are half-price from 9 to 11 PM.

I was planning to get a fancy salad in order to keep my eating under control. The O’Toole’s chopped salad ($11) looked pretty good, what with chicken, avocado, roasted corn and blue cheese in the mix. Salmon spinach salad ($12) had the allure of the unusual, with balsamic-glazed fish served over the greens with tomatoes and onions and blue cheese and more. There’s a chef’s salad ($9), a cobb ($12), a chicken Caesar (only $8!) and more—and then I caught sight of the specials.

Each day of the week has its own, such as Tuesday’s $5 Angus burger, Thursday’s $10 sirloin steak and Friday’s $11 fish platter. Saturday? Ribs. $12 for a rack of the baby-back variety. And that’s for a full dinner plate. Along with $3.50 for a pint of Red Hook Audible Ale.

So much for salad.

These ribs aren’t smoked; they’re not falling off the bone. Baby back ribs allow for more streamlined treatment. But it was as good an order of such ribs as I’ve had, with a slathering of sauce that was rather more sweet than I prefer, but certainly exactly what the mainstream ribs fan expects. With a choice of potatoes, I ordered one back (there’s my health concession!) and the veg was an adequate sautée of squash and carrots and cauliflower and broccoli. Buttered, of course.

For 12 bucks, you can hardly kick. Not that the other entrées are going to challenge the wallet. Fish and chips are $8, a Reuben sandwich is $9. Bangers and mash ($10) and a salmon BLT ($10) are among the less-usual offerings. Half-pound burgers begin at $7.

Grilled chicken—two teriyaki-basted breasts—runs $14, stuffed sole is $15, country meatloaf is $14, a salmon dinner of two filets is $16. The steaks top out the pricing, with a sirloin priced at $15 for 8 ounces, $17 for 12, a steak au poivre at $21 and a sirloin-crab-cakes combo $22.

Susan at first was tempted by the fajita offerings, which can include chicken, shrimp, steak or a combo priced from $13 to $18, but she headed for a simpler place with a chicken fajita wrap ($8) that put the chicken strips with sautéed peppers and onions and cheese and tomatoes into a flour tortilla wrapper, out of which she then scooped the filling as if that wrapper were some kind of carbohydrate menace.

Another way O’Toole’s distinguishes itself is with a menu of craft beers, so you’ll find Flying Dog, Goose Island and Red Hook among the offerings, and if you’re truly dedicated to enjoying some brew, you can reserve a draft table with your very own tap.

Lots of TVs decorate the place, and it’s worth checking the restaurant’s website so that you can enjoy or avoid the various events and entertainment also on tap.

Service was very attentive as our visit began, and then the place was swamped with the incoming, including a 12-top and an eight-top that arrived in quick succession. Still, when we indicated that we needed to get to another appointment, we were quickly attended. Back when I would stop at the chain places, I often fell into that black hole of server neglect immediately after the entrée was placed.

So let’s welcome O’Toole’s to the land of independence. It’s working well for them.