Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Allen Street Grill sports a redesigned space and a seasonally-driven, ‘new American’ menu

In 2019, Pat Croce & Company, with Penn State alums Jeffrey Sorg and Michael Croce at the helm, purchased a portfolio of properties in downtown State College – among them, the Allen Street Grill.

“Michael and I live outside of Philadelphia and we run a small, family hospitality management company and all of our other restaurants and hospitality holdings are in Florida, where I lived in Key West for six years,” Sorg explains. “We were looking for a project closer to home, in the Pennsylvania area. When this came across our radar, it really piqued our interest because, first, State College is a place we love. We both went to school here, both met our wives here, and spent formative, fun years of our lives here. We have really close friends who live here in State College. So for that reason, we were excited about the opportunity. We also love getting involved in projects that involve iconic brands that we have a close affinity for, in communities we love.”

However, if you’ve visited the Allen Street Grill recently, or glimpsed its new branding on social media, where the restaurant is dubbed Allen Street Grill Cocktails + Dining, you’ll have noticed that the restaurant isn’t what it once was. But then, that’s nothing new.

Allen Street Grill has undergone several transitions over the last few years, including a merger with Spats Cafe and Speakeasy, at which point it received a new name, Spats at the Grill. When Sorg and Croce took over the space, though, they made the decision to transition the restaurant back to the Allen Street Grill name and experience.

“Spats was a restaurant near and dear to my heart. My wife and I had our first date at Spats. I loved the restaurant when I went to school here. I went there when my parents came into town quite a bit,” Sorg says. “We evaluated the best strategies for the restaurant. The restaurant was not performing well financially; it was probably the worst performing restaurant here on the corner. What became clear to us was, while I think it was a well-intentioned merger of two iconic brands, when you put two really respected, reputable brands together it sort of, in a way, made no one happy. The Spats fans were disappointed, the Allen Street Grill fans were disappointed. … We evaluated both brands and ultimately… it became the clear and obvious choice to go back and rebrand as the Allen Street Grill.”

The hard choices weren’t over for the business duo, though. Shortly after purchasing the restaurant, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“We were across from a major university, what was the worst that could happen?” Croce says with a laugh. “Then we had the longest spring break in history. … It was scary. It was a real gut-check moment, but I wouldn’t change it.”

Croce and Sorg agree that the pandemic strengthened their bonds with their team, and the restaurant provided a much-needed creative outlet during a time of stress and uncertainty.

“It gave us a hopeful, optimistic project to work on with our teams,” notes Sorg.

The project was certainly not a simple one. Over the course of much of 2020, Croce and Sorg oversaw the near-complete redesign of the Allen Street Grill’s front of house, as well as its culinary concept.

“We had this amazing, iconic space, but it needed a lot of cleanup and a refresh,” says Sorg. “Everything from the flooring to the walls to the paint colors to the lighting to the furniture is all new.”

Still, they kept elements of the old Allen Street Grill space intact, such as the recognizable tile flooring in the restaurant’s bar area, as well as a lot of the restaurant’s woodwork.

“We wanted it to feel recognizable as the Allen Street Grill, but with a fresh take and more modernized. We wanted it to feel much more inspired. We sourced a lot of local art and used a muralist from Philadelphia to do a small mural installation. We had fun trying to be creative in restoring the space,” Sorg says. 

The menu development took about three months, working with Chef Karen Nicholas to create a seasonally-driven, “new American” menu with Western and Eastern European influences. The small menu is focused on quality over quantity. The accompanying bar menu features classics-inspired craft cocktails and, in a first for State College, the wine menu features all biodynamic wines. If you’re looking for your old Allen Street Grill favorites on the menu, though, you may be disappointed. However, Sorg notes the team has received zero complaints in that area.

“The pandemic helped in a way,” he says. “People were more excited just that we were open and reinvesting in this iconic space … and offering a hopeful vision for the future.”

The menu features ingredients sourced from a range of local farms and providers, Croce explains.

“There are a handful of local companies we use. DDD Homestead for our chicken – they actually grow a chicken specific to the size Karen wants. … Maine Bay & Berry for some seafood. … Some local farms for vegetables. [The menu is] as local as we can get.”

As for new menu items the two owners recommend? The cauliflower soup, with white cheddar, apple, and focaccia croutons; the chopped kale salad with apple, fennel, pumpkin seeds, and gorgonzola; the menu’s rotating pasta options; and the 16-ounce ribeye steak au poivre, served with salt and vinegar potatoes and garlic spinach.

While you will see some takeout and meal kit-style options available on the Allen Street Grill website (allenstreetgrill.com), Croce and Sorg emphasize their focus is on the future and, hopefully soon, serving diners at full capacity. They’re also focusing on the other properties that they purchased alongside Allen Street Grill, with Corner Room interior and menu updates planned for the summer.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here and to be the steward of these iconic brands. I’m proud of our team and what they’ve done during this incredibly challenging time. Despite the setbacks, I’m optimistic and grateful for the opportunity to be here in State College,” Sorg says.

Croce adds, “And we’re excited to see The Tavern redone and having that bar raised across the culinary map along this street. It’s exciting to see more and more restaurants popping up and making State College a culinary destination.”

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Holly Riddle is a freelance writer.