Bunker Hill American Taproom
1912 Wantagh Avenue, Wantagh
SERVICE: Friendly and sometimes overly familiar at the bar; brusque in the dining room. Meal pacing can be erratic.
AMBIENCE: Aspiring gastropub, with a sleek, lively bar on one side and a loud dining room on the other, plus lots of TV screens.
ESSENTIALS: Open daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Major credit cards accepted; wheelchair accessible; drive gingerly through the tight parking lot.
Can a new look and a new menu change the spirit of a place? That’s a question I pondered as I sipped an IPA and snacked on roasted Brussels sprouts at Bunker Hill American Taproom.
For decades, this spot in a Wantagh shopping center was a classic dive called RP McMurphy’s, a dimly lit place with sports memorabilia on the walls and, as far as I can tell, a devoted following in this close-knit town.
When Bunker Hill owner Rob Beck took over the bar three years ago, he kept it intact — until last winter, when the adjacent pork store closed and he decided to give McMurphy’s a larger footprint and a new identity. Beck added a dining room, a more atmospheric bar area and craft beers on some of the 20 taps, complete with corresponding glassware. Chef Joanna Geis came on board to execute a menu that combined bar stalwarts such as fried mozzarella sticks with slow-cooked pork belly and short-rib-topped burgers.
In order words, RP McMurphy’s became a gastropub. Despite truffle fries and Delirium Tremens ale in tulip glasses, Bunker Hill retains its watering-hole DNA. Bottles of Bud and salty banter still dominate the bar (though cocktails, such as a finely tuned Aviation, are excellent), servers can be brusque and despite the menu’s loftier aims, the predominantly fried bar snacks are where it’s at.
Because waits for dishes can be long, it’s maybe wise to order a bowl of fresh, hot, paprika-dusted potato chips upon arrival. They come with a luscious blue-cheese dip, appear quickly and are generously portioned for $5. The kitchen’s clever take on corn dogs — smoked sausage encased in crunchy, golden cornmeal batter, and served with a formidable mustard — aims straight for your inner child and is a don’t-miss dish.
Speaking of children, the dining room at Bunker Hill (despite being painfully loud at times) is assertively child-friendly. There’s a kids’ menu, but both small and big people can bond over a giant, warm pretzel that arrives hanging from a hook. Between sips of beer, tear it apart and drag its chewy, salt-speckled chunks through a gooey Cheddar-ale sauce.
On the opposite end of the carb scale is a starter of roasted Brussels sprouts, though they’re so enormous that their charred and crisp outer leaves (achieved partly via flash flying) give way to undercooked cores. Even so, they’re a more satisfying choice than Bunker Hill’s unremarkable crabcakes, which come with fried caper berries but don’t taste terribly fresh.
Salads are ambitious. However, an early iteration of the Trenton salad — a barely dressed, lemony tumble of cucumber, asparagus, feta and arugula — was woefully weighed down by dressing on a subsequent visit. Fortunately, the inventive Concord salad picked up the slack: baby greens in a fruity pear vinaigrette dotted with blackberries, sliced avocado and delicately fried discs of goat cheese.
In matters of meat and sometimes fish, the kitchen can err on the side of overcooking: Grilled lamb chops, despite being sheathed in an inky fig-balsamic glaze, arrived overdone. A generous slab of slow-roasted pork belly, topped with pickled apple cubes, was tough. A main course of pan-roasted salmon over a fava-bean puree was arcing toward dryness, and the Bunker burger — an unfussy combo of a patty with melted cheese (you have your pick), sans lettuce and tomato — was cooked beyond the requested doneness. Even still, the grind had promise, and if cooked more carefully probably makes for a fine burger.
The belle of the main courses was a bowl of grilled giant shrimp spooned onto some manchego-laced grits, then punched up with a mince of tomatoes and bacon — kind of Southern, kind of Italian, very restorative.
It’s also hard to go astray with the blackberry-bacon melt, a drippy creation that marries bacon, melted havarti and a layer of blackberry jam on buttery toast, with a few slivers of jalapeño adding pops of heat.
Those with sweet tooths should note that there are exactly zero desserts at Bunker Hill. After our glum server delivered this disappointing news at the end of the meal, she then vanished for a while, leaving us to ponder it when all we really wanted was the check.
My guess is most people don’t come here for dessert, though. And Bunker Hill is at its best with a beer in one hand and a corn dog or pretzel in the other.