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Upscale pubs court value-conscious diners

The menu features Asiago-stuffed chorizo risotto and a platter of artisan cheeses and locally made sausage.

But don't bother looking for a wine list.

The best bet for a drink to accompany any meal on the menu at the Griffin Pub in Bracebridge, Ont., is beer. Ontario craft beer, to be exact.

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The cottage-country pub, which opened under new owners last August, focuses on preparing food with fresh, local ingredients and pairing it with any one of the many Ontario craft beers on the menu.

And while high-end restaurants and cocktail lounges across Canada are fretting over empty tables and a downturn in profits, business is steady at the Griffin, even before the arrival of summer tourists.

"It's been going very well, actually," said Jed Corbeil, who owns the bar and runs it with partner Curt Dunlop.

Canadians may be in a recessionary mindset, but that doesn't mean they want to cook for themselves every evening or forgo nights out with friends. As more people start to scrimp and save, some pub owners are seeing an opportunity to attract customers who still want to enjoy going out without having to spend more than $200 on dinner for two.

"When anybody wants a night out, they want something they can talk about," Mr. Corbeil said.

"To be able to do that and not spend a boatload of money is a win-win. It's looking for something to get your spirits up."

So forget boring mozzarella sticks, tired quesadillas and the predictability of mass-marketed beer. A new generation of pubs is popping up across Canada with owners who pride themselves on offering creative meals using fresh - even exotic - ingredients, quality brew that doesn't cost an arm and a leg, and an atmosphere they believe can rival many pricey restaurants.

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That's the premise behind the Adelaide Street Pub, which opened in downtown Toronto in December. It features a sleek but inviting stainless steel and wood interior and a menu that takes pub grub to a new level.

Customers can order steak frites or smoked chicken pasta or, from time to time, exotic game such as kangaroo, bison and emu.

While pub staples such as burgers and wings are still on offer, the dishes are made with a twist. The burger is topped with caramelized onions and smoked Jarlsberg cheese and comes on an English muffin, while the wings are pan-fried and served with lime aioli.

The bartenders can offer a drink to suit any taste, from creative martinis to high-quality bottles of red wine. But the main focus is the assortment of international and Canadian craft beers poured from a "beer organ" behind the bar. It's a happy medium among the expensive restaurants and clubs in the area, according to director of operations John Holland, who says the business is well positioned to keep budget-minded customers coming.

"We're probably going to benefit from a lot of people who perhaps don't have the budget to go out to the higher-end restaurants now, but are still looking for great food and innovative drinks," Mr. Holland said.

Vancouver's Irish Heather isn't a new pub, but it recently moved into a new location, and the change of scenery inspired the owners to incorporate more locally produced beer and interesting menu items, in addition to the wide variety of whisky the pub has become known for.

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In Vancouver, a menu that features fresh and local ingredients has long been considered a secret to success. Assistant manager Jason Hurdis said he believes that winning formula, coupled with the pub's selection of well-priced beer and new location, will help it weather the economic storm much better than other restaurants.

The evolution of pubs from cookie-cutter watering holes to innovative taverns that showcase fresh food and craft beer is a wave spreading. Those pubs that adapt to changing times will do well, Mr. Hurdis said.

"If [customers]are going to pay for something, especially in these times, they want it to be fresh and good," he said. "The smart pubs are going to benefit from that and the ones that are trying to keep their costs down are not going to."

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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