Saying Allentown’s Hamilton Street district has undergone some changes in the last two years may be the Lehigh Valley understatement of the year.
Roughly two years ago, the new PPL Center rose from Allentown’s center city ashes, bringing with it a bevy of new restaurants and cafes ranging from the fancy to the casual, sporting beverages from cocktails to coffees.
All of a sudden, there were options. Options on each and every corner of what used to house only a few coffee shops or delis during the day and only a few restaurants that were attractive enough to bring in visitors at night.
One of those is the Allentown Brew Works, whose owners made the decision well before any others that Hamilton Street in Allentown was going to be one that would be successful for new restaurants and ventures.
That decision is becoming more and more en vogue as restaurants such as The Dime, Hamilton Kitchen, Roar, Hook, and more start to call the Hamilton Street District in Allentown not only their home, but a new place for refined nightlife.
Each of these new establishments came with their own signature. Roar has its 1920s speakeasy vibe. The Dime fills the top of the PPL Center. Hamilton Kitchen sports the best patio perhaps in the entire Lehigh Valley. And now, nestled a bit away from the hubbub of those restaurants mostly located between 9th and 7th streets, is Hamilton Street’s latest arrival: Grain.
To be sure, Grain has it’s own strong personality, looking to, if not stand out from the rest of the growing Hamilton Street District restaurant crowd, at least cement itself as a location for those looking for quality products and inspired drinks.
Grain is the brainchild of the owners of Bethlehem’s The Bayou, Morris Taylor and Christian Duarte. The Bayou, only a few years old, is already a staple in Bethlehem restaurant and nightlife, with reservations sometimes needed to be made many days in advance.
The co-owners made an effort to make sure Grain was different than The Bayou in taste, but certainly not in quality or ambiance.
Grain’s owners are proud of the fact that they use farm-fresh ingredients including grains, vegetables, herbs, and more. Grain’s infusing downtown Allentown with the freshest possible food on its plates and while that’s important to Taylor and Duarte, it’s also important to patrons who are looking to eat not only healthier, but more responsibly.
That sensible approach also carries over to Grain’s drink menu, which may be more experimental and exciting than The Bayou’s southern style.
We visited Grain on what we imagined to be a slow Monday evening. Parking just across the street from the new restaurant, my wife, Crystal, and I were pleased to see more than a few other couples walking up and down Hamilton going from either one restaurant to another or from their cars to their final destination.
The 58-seat restaurant is located at the site of the former Federal Grill at 536 Hamilton St.
The fact that downtown Allentown is slowly, but very surely, transforming into a more walk-able one in the vein of Easton and Bethlehem is a testament to the popularity of these later night establishments.
But, back to our evening.
Grain fits in perfectly along Hamilton Street, with inviting signage and a dark, sophisticated coloring. The first thing we noticed upon entering (besides the lovely staff, of course) were the stairs leading to the second floor main dining room.
While we didn’t stay for dinner, we did get a look at the main dining room, which pops with original brick walls, wooden beams, a striking American flag and a metal ceiling.
After our little tour up top, we walked back down to the main bar area, which seats 15. Our first impressions were that of near awe at the detail the owners put into the environment. The bar features old wooden beer cases, which we spent some time identifying. The shelves behind the bar are made of reclaimed wood and the rest of the décor features items you’d expect to see on some of the local farms Grain brings in their ingredients from, such as barrels and pitchforks, among other items.
The detailed environment raised our expectations before the staff took our orders.
Crystal started with the Grapefruit Thyme, made with Bombay East, Captain Morgan grapefruit, rosemary peppercorn bitters, grapefruit juice, lime juice, and a splash of tonic.
Light and refreshing, the drink tasted fresh, she said. We’re not sure if it’s because we’ve been told of all the fresh ingredients at the restaurant or not, but that fresh and crisp feeling accompanied nearly every drink we tried.
I opted for the Ghost Julep, which featured muddled mint leaves, a splash of water, Jim Beam ghost, topped with soda and a hefty amount of powdered sugar on the leaves.
The drink was enough to have a few other patrons walking by stop and ask what it was only to have me shrug my shoulders and defer to the bartender, who quickly and eloquently described the drink in full.
I’m pretty sure two more were ordered by the time those patrons sat down.
Crystal’s second drink was the Basil Berry Spice, made with muddled basil, strawberry puree, vodka, Old Bay flavored vodka, lemon juice, cranberry juice, simple syrup, and soda.
Yep, you read that correctly, Old Bay flavored vodka.
It tasted nearly what you think it would taste, except probably a smidgen better and lighter. The vodka wasn’t hidden in the drink; rather, it popped to the back of the mouth with its distinctive and memorable flavor. It was enough for both of us to make an audible gasp after taking our first drink, and then quickly going back for another.
Staff told us how they had been experiment with many of the recipes, and heavily with the Old Bay flavored vodka, which they had worked into a syrup to maximize the flavor.
It was good enough that we both tried the Old Bay flavored vodka on its own; just to get an idea what it tasted like naked.
Grain is much more than the dozen signature cocktails, which range from $9-11, although we’d highly recommend starting there. The twenty-four taps that line the back of the bar have a quality mix of domestic and craft, as well as cider, and include local breweries such as Weyerbacher from Easton and Hijinx from Allentown.
Grain is only a few months old and is already a must-go-to on the Hamilton, dare we say it, “strip.”
Head in for food with fresh ingredients, décor with fresh ideas, and drinks that are simply fresh.
Grain is located at 536 Hamilton St and is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The bar stays open until 1 a.m. daily. Call 484-221-9465 or visit facebook.com/grainallentown and http://grainallentown.com/
About the Contributors
George Wacker, owner of Lehigh Valley with Love Media, LLC, is an accomplished communications professional skilled in social, digital, print, and interactive media, as well as…
Stephanie Kelly Imhoff
Stephanie Kelly Imhof is a portrait photographer currently living in Easton, PA with her husband and daughter. She is a freelance art buyer and photography editor…