The Playwright Public House

When I heard that a Dublin native had opened a pub in Ashland inspired by the pub culture of his youth, I knew I had to check it out.

That the new venture carried a perfect-for-Ashland name — The Playwright — seemed a good sign. And an early opening to show the U.S. women's soccer team play in the World Cup final added another promising element.

The enthusiastic crowd of soccer fans of all ages gathered at the pub was even better, creating a vibrant, instant community. A toddler wobbled between tables pushed close together and crowded with extra chairs. Hip, young professionals clustered at the bar alongside retirees. My husband and I grabbed a tall table near the window.

Even without a friendly assembly of patrons, The Playwright would be welcoming. The space that formerly housed Lela's has a new, dark, wood floor, charcoal-colored beams, a black, marble bar backed with whiskey, an array of cafe tables, tall pub tables and even a comfy-looking couch.

Black-and-white photos of Ireland, dimly glowing, lanternlike lights over the bar and elegant, curving track lights across the ceiling hint at the owners' backgrounds.

Peter Bolton, who grew up in Ireland, worked for years as an interior designer in Seattle and planned to continue with that career when he and wife Kelli Bolton — who grew up in Southern Oregon — moved here. When the slow economy limited the jobs Peter Bolton could find, he returned to the restaurant industry, in which he had worked across Europe. The couple opened The Playwright in early July.

Initially dubbed a "gastro pub," The Playwright already has scaled back its menu to simple burgers, salads, snacks and sandwiches, although it maintains a focus on healthy, local and organic food.

"After the first couple of days, we realized it was too much focus on the restaurant," said Bolton, adding that he wants to create a community gathering place, albeit one where people can enjoy food and a drink.

My husband and I enjoyed a cheese plate, priced at $5 that included shaved Parmesan, crumbled blue cheese, Dubliner — an aged cow's milk cheese similar to Cheddar but with a sweet, nutty flavor — and Cotswold, a rich, golden cheese spiked with the flavor of onions and chives and sometimes known as pub cheese, as well as a scoop of spicy hummus and an array of baguette slices.

He ordered an $8 beet salad: sweet roasted beets and dollops of tangy chevre over mixed greens that included plenty of arugula and frisee dressed with a mild raspberry vinaigrette.

I had a portobello sandwich ($10) consisting of sauteed mushroom slices on a bun baked by SunStone Artisan Bakery. The hearty mushrooms were accented with arugula, sliced tomato and sweet onion, another musky dab of hummus and more Dubliner cheese. The buns are baked to stand up to the hearty London burger, which comes piled with Guinness-braised onions, blue cheese and chutney. It seemed a bit big for the mushroom sandwich, but the tender texture, golden color and sprinkle of sesame seeds were lovely.

Seasoned, waffle-cut fries accompanied the sandwich. Bolton admitted that turning out timely, fresh fries in a health-conscious kitchen — with an oven instead of a fryer — is a challenge, but they are fine-tuning recipes for sweet-potato and regular, baked fries.

I'll be back to try that and another pub classic, the toasty. The most basic incarnation is a grilled cheese sandwich grown up with tomato and onions, but The Playwright also offers versions with ham and Brie or turkey, Cheddar and tomato. All cost $8.

The perfect pint is another key part of a pub experience. I enjoyed a Smithwick's, a biscuity Irish red produced by the makers of Guinness — of course, available, too. My husband ordered Stella Artois, one of his favorite lagers.

The Playwright also has a Belgian wheat beer, and a few beers from around the Pacific Northwest on tap, as well as a selection of bottled beers and cider. Draft beers are served in a 20-ounce imperial pint for $5.50, a 16-ounce pint for $4.50 or a half-pint glass for $3.

— Anita Burke

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