The Refuge is a welcome addition to downtown Menlo Park, where you can almost hear a pin drop on Friday nights.
Even early on a Friday evening, the Crane Street restaurant is packed, loud and lively with patrons young and old enjoying the two odd-couple specialties Refuge has to offer: beer and pastrami.
"We started getting this Belgian beer (and) pastrami type thing, which doesn't make any sense," owner Matt Levin said, reflecting on the evolution of the first Refuge, which opened in San Carlos in 2008. Early menu items like charcuterie, foie gras and about 20 wines by the glass that reflected Levin's French culinary background were voted out by customers who preferred the five or so Belgian beers and pastrami sandwiches, he said.
The first Refuge was a marriage of two things: one, Levin's shock upon moving to the Bay Area in the early 2000s at the dearth of good pastrami, and two: a longtime dream of opening a casual gastropub reminiscent of Le Refuge, a charming bistro he often passed by when working in Paris. Levin met his current executive chef, Michael Greuel, in the kitchen at Viognier Restaurant in San Mateo.
Refuge expanded to Menlo Park in 2013, bringing 24 taps (six more than San Carlos) and what Levin describes as "East Coast street food" -- homemade pastrami sandwiches, cheesesteaks and burgers -- to the sleepy downtown.
The Belgian beer selection might be Refuge's best claim to fame. An extensive menu boasts sour beers, blonde ales, stouts, ciders and Trappist beers (brewed in a Trappist monastery) as well as some American IPAs (India Pale Ales) and local brews. Draught beers range in price from $6 to $10; there are also some available by the bottle.
Enjoy the brew of your choice at the bar, which stretches nearly the length of the space and provides plenty of seating. On Mondays, enjoy select beers for only $3 each.
If you're beer averse, there are also six or so wines available by the glass and bottle (or just go somewhere else where beer isn't the main event).
If you're eating, stick with the pastrami. Pastrami is made from the "heart of the navel," the traditional cut used to make the cured meat.
"(It's a) perfectly marbled type of cut," Levin said. "It's really hard to come by. It's pretty costly. It's not a cheap cut of meat like it started out back in the day." (This and the laborious process of making pastrami comes out to a somewhat pricey sandwich -- $17.95 for the basic Reuben at Refuge -- but Levin points out that at pastrami-god Katz's Delicatessen in New York City, Reubens go for a cool $20.)
The first step to creating pastrami is a wet brine. The meat is later dried off, rinsed, rubbed in spices like black pepper and coriander (some add paprika), slightly smoked and then steamed, explained Levin.
"We steam it well past the point until it's completely melt-in-your-mouth," he said.
It's then carved by hand into thick pieces and piled between two pieces of toasted rye bread with sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese. Two other variations at Refuge include coleslaw or mustard; add-ons include chopped liver and avocado.
I didn't get that "melt-in-your-mouth" experience on a recent visit, but the sandwich was enjoyable nonetheless. It comes with a generous side-serving of pickled red onions and pickles, which might render your order of the house-pickled vegetables ($7) null. If you're sharing, opt for the veggie plate, which comes with not only pickles but also pickled jicama, mushrooms, bell peppers, pearl onions and other bounty. They're a welcome, refreshing respite between bites of heavy pastrami.
The cheesesteak de arbol with avocado, de arbol sauce, sour cream, red onion, lettuce, tomato, cilantro and cheddar ($14) sounded intriguing but was unremarkable. We opted for chicken instead of beef, which might have been a mistake, but I tasted mostly bread (an Amoroso roll from Philadelphia) and sour cream. The de arbol sauce, a smoky red salsa, was nowhere to be found. (Also, warning: The cheesesteak is enormous.)
Garlic fries on the side of the cheesesteak were also unimpressive, somewhat soggy and not worth the $2 upgrade. Perhaps the "goofy fries" (a $6 upgrade or $10 on its own) with pastrami and cheese sauce on top are the way to go.
There are also several solid burgers. Again, the one that features pastrami (sliced on top of a beef patty, $17.50) might be the winner.
For those attempting to be healthy at this beer-and-meat haven, there are options: a pastrami chopped salad, poached pear salad, soups, seared tilapia sandwich, veggie-and-cheese sandwiches, a chicken risotto.
Another boon for late-night-starved Menlo-ites: Refuge is open until 10 p.m. (gasp!) on Fridays and Saturdays and until 9 p.m. every other night.
1143 Crane St., Menlo Park
Monday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.
Friday: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.
Saturday: noon-10 p.m.
Sunday: noon-9 p.m.