BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse

Before we moved to the Seattle area BJ’s had a different meaning for us: OK, you can take your mind out of the gutter; I’m referring to the chain of warehouse stores à la Sam’s Club and Costco. While there are no BJ’s Wholesale Clubs over here there is an (unrelated) BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, and we recently checked it out.

My intent for this post began, as always, with the idea of considering an area brewpub as a candidate in my quest for Puget’s Perfect Pint. In doing so I think I must set the record straight on at least two counts.

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First of all there’s the issue of BJ’s location: Westfield Southcenter. This location is still widely considered ‘gangsta’ or ‘ghetto’ except among people who live in its immediate vicinity. Ask anyone in Seattle or Bellevue about Southcenter and a majority will say they won’t go there – even though in many cases they’ve never been.

Southcenter has such a negative connotation that anti-transit wackos in Bellevue are currently using it very effectively to influence pubic opinion in their misguided attempts to delay construction of East Link light rail. They spout racist and class-based paranoia such as how it’ll bring all those “Southcenter kinds of people” (read minorities) into our pristine (read WASP) community.

I’ve commented before about the parallels between our former home and our present one, comparing Boca Bitch and her twin, Bellevue Barbie. What’s really behind the attitude towards Southcenter is not so much a fear of unwashed masses riding trains to snobby, pretentious downtown Bellevue, rather that their presence might pursuade Bellevue Barbie and her obscenely wealthy neighbors from nearby well-healed communities such as Clyde Hill and Medina to stop coming to Bellevue Square and instead drive their Mercedes SUVs over the Evergreen Point Bridge to Seattle’s upscale shopping (Google “1835 73rd Ave NE” to see what I mean).

As Bellevue residents we spend quite a lot of our free time in downtown Bellevue, including its “Bellevue Collection“. Frankly we have a hard time accepting that Bellevue is that much more upscale than other centers in the region, including the alleged pariah of Southcenter. The reality, as naysayers will find out if only they would look for themselves, rather than be influenced by outdated hearsay, is that since Westfield Group pumped over $250 million into renovating and expanding their Southcenter property, it has attracted a veritable who’s-who of most desirable retail and restaurant tenants, transforming it into the region’s mall leader.

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Southcenter is now the largest retail development in the Pacific Northwest: it offers a 16 screen multiplex theater, at least 10 sit-down restaurants, plus an upscale food-court, and over 1.7 million sq ft of retail space housing more than 240 stores; Bellevue Square pales by comparison. During our recent visit we found Southcenter to be airy, spacious, very clean, and pleasant to wander around and explore.

Now that I’ve addressed the Southcenter issue there is no reason not to go and check out BJ’s Restaurant, however the other thing I must set straight is whether BJ’s is actually a legitimate candidate for Puget’s Perfect Pint. The short answer, unfortunately, is no – here’s why…

With the dizzying array of Seattle-area microbreweries operating their own brewpubs and supplying local restaurants and taverns, I have to draw the line somewhere. This line, I decided early on, is the presence of and ongoing commitment to on-premise brewing.

BJ’s Restaurants is a California-based chain operating 102 restaurants in 13 states. At first glance I assumed they would satisfy my requirement in Seattle. After all, with an impressive array of taps at their “Restaurant & Brewhouse”, they are pouring BJ’s in-house beer along with an excellent selection of guest brews. Even the word “brewhouse” in their name, as well as what appears to be brewing vessels viewable from the restaurant through a large window, implies on-premise brewing.

However if you dig deeper you soon realize all this is an illusion. Just as I like to call Rogue Ales the Ben & Jerry’s of beer, I’ll henceforth be referring to BJ’s Restaurants as the Disneyland of brewpubs. At the majority of their locations the ‘brewery’ is a cleverly presented sham – which is a shame because BJ’s beers, some of them at least, are not bad.

In a nutshell, BJ’s operates two restaurant concepts:

  • “BJ’s Restaurant & Brewery” – includes on-site brewing capability
  • “BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse” – beer supplied either by a BJ’s brewery or by a contract brewer.

According to BJ’s latest 10Q quarterly report, only 4 of their brewery restaurants feature in-house brewing facilities while more than 60% of their beer is now contract-brewed. They are aggressively transitioning to contract-brewing all of their beer with the ultimate goal of maintaining a single in-house brewery for R&D.

All this is moot for BJ’s in Seattle though – they no longer have a microbrewery license with the state. I think this is enough to disqualify BJ’s from consideration for Puget’s Perfect Pint but nevertheless, what about their beer?

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We ordered the beer sampler: all 8 of the standard house brews plus the current seasonal, Grand Cru, a strong Belgian-style ale. Our reactions…

LightSwitch Lager – A low calorie brew targeting Bud Light drinkers – hence the name “Switch”.

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who would choose to drink Bud Light wouldn’t recognize the opportunity to ‘switch’ even if was forcibly poured down their throat. This brew was truly awful – wouldn’t be surprised if it is contract-brewed by Miller or Coors.

Harvest Hefeweizen – We’re not Hef fans but I have to believe even a Hef fan would not be impressed with this. Just flat and boring, a really blahh brew.

Piranha Pale Ale – The first brew we didn’t want to spit out – it’s maybe on par with Pyramid, which isn’t saying much – but not a match for any other Seattle-area Pale ale I can think of.

I saw at the BJ’s website that they have a brew called Big Fish IPA described as being based on Piranha Pale but for some unknown reason it is available only in Arizona. Given the popularity of IPAs in the Northwest I find this very odd.

Brewhouse Blonde – A light golden ale in the style of a Kolsch. Not as truly awful as the LightSwitch but not good either. This is probably the poorest Blonde we’ve encountered. While not our preferred style we know a good Blonde Ale when we taste one – such as Redhook, The Ram, Schooner Exact, and Elliott Bay, just to name a few.

Jeremiah Red – The Spouse didn’t like this at all: while I didn’t particularly dislike it, I have had better Reds. It’s certainly better than a Pyramid, again not saying much, perhaps approaching the quality of a McMenamins brew (which are not that great).

P.M. Porter – this was the Spouse’s favorite of the bunch, served on Nitro. It was pretty nice to my taste too but not close to the best I’ve had, not among  my top ten favorite Porters.

Nutty Brewnette – Supposed to be a Brown Ale – if so it was a pretty poor example. Actually it looked and tasted to me more like an Amber, certainly it had the malt and hop flavor profile of an amber, and as such I quite liked it.

Tatonka Imperial Stout – This was my favorite of the bunch, and one of the better stouts I’ve had anywhere – this maybe a top 5 contender. The only sad thing is this might be the only brew from our sampler that would tempt me to make a return trip to BJ’s unless I just happen to be at Southcenter.

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Seasonal Grand Cru – I’m not a huge fan of Belgian Tripels but this was quite enjoyable. It has the characteristic sweet spiced fruit nose and taste without being too sickly – definately better than Big Al’s but not as good as Issaquah’s Menage à Frog.

As a restaurant, BJ’s is very nice – fans of Cheesecake Factory or PF Changs will be very comfortable here. The menu is very extensive and prices are quite reasonable for what you get.

All of the food items we ordered were good – no complaints there – and our server Cynthia was great; she has been working at BJ’s since they opened in 2008 and it shows.

One advantage of BJ’s being at Southcenter is how it makes it easy to reach by transit from just about anywhere in the Seattle metro area. Nearest Transit Centers are Renton, Burien, Tukwila Link station, and downtown Seattle.

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