Most Alaskans would agree that if the sun is out, we should be in it. I'll go a step further and say that if the sun is out, we should be in it drinking wine.
On a recent weekend with friends in Talkeetna, the weather was unexpectedly perfect and we decided to celebrate with a toast. There was no patio proper at the inn, so we settled on upended industrial-sized soap containers and used a cooler as a cocktail table. The lack of Campari umbrellas didn't bother us a bit. We spent the afternoon happily drinking too many cocktails and getting too much sun. No patio? No problem. Alaskans are nothing if not resourceful.
In Anchorage, the restaurants have done the work for us. I was assigned the grueling task of eating and drinking at the city's most popular patios to commemorate a spectacular spring. My first plan was to create a rubric that would average each location's atmosphere, food and service and help me rank them accordingly. But that proved difficult. In some cases, the disparity in quality between the ambience and the service or food was too great. Instead, I decided to give each element a letter grade.
Deciding where to go was a challenge. The Peanut Farm is a classic choice, Midnight Sun Brewery is a bit of an outlier and the Rustic Goat is a new kid on the block. I limited my visits to places with an actual patio and to forgo locations that simply cordon off a section of their parking lot when the weather turns nice.
I won't pretend my job is hard. Spending the week sipping wines and nibbling snacks outdoors was not exactly a challenge. But keeping my word count down was. Let's just say there was a lot to write about. So, to give every spot its moment in the (literal) sun, I'm going to talk outdoor dining in two parts. This week, I'm covering Midtown and South Anchorage. Next week, I'll cover downtown and Spenard.
This unassuming little restaurant south of O'Malley has a surprisingly charming outdoor space. A spacious patio, a lush lawn and a small man-made waterfall create a relaxing little haven on an otherwise busy strip of road.
My husband and I had a longish wait to place our drink order of two sangrias, which turned out to be unavailable that day. We changed our orders to a scratch margarita ($8.75) and a strawberry drop ($10.50). Sweet and mild, my margarita tasted suspiciously like your basic Costco mix (I'm not above it, but I don't want to pay $9 for it). It lacked the limey punch I expect in a "scratch" drink. The strawberry drop tasted unpleasantly off until we realized that the glass had been rimmed with salt by mistake. Our waitress replaced it with a properly sugar-rimmed glass and a lemon -- not strawberry -- drop. Frustrated and thirsty, we decided to drink it anyway. The third time was not the charm.
Our snacks, a grilled steak appetizer ($14) and fried mozzarella ($9), were fine, if a bit pricey for the portions.
When my kids were younger, the Peanut Farm's deck was the perfect destination for a warm afternoon. While they played, shoe- and sock-less, at the creek's edge, I could sip a cold beer and read a book. The sound of water rushing, the quaint wooden bridge that crosses the creek and the lazy ducks swimming by all create a lovely atmosphere -- one that completely belies the Peanut Farm's proximity to traffic, a gas station and a car dealership.
On a recent weekday afternoon, there was plenty of seating and service was quick and attentive. The menu is not terribly inventive and the food is unexceptional, but my friend and I weren't feeling too critical as we sipped wine in the sun and picked on a plate of jalapeno poppers ($9.75) and pork wild "wings" ($12.75). It is, hands down, my favorite deck in town.
The Loft at Midnight Sun Brewery
Tucked away in an industrial neighborhood in South Anchorage, the deck at Midnight Sun Brewery has a unique feel: less arboreal, more urban. The sun doesn't hit the deck until later in the evening (as of mid-May, not until 5-ish), so bear that in mind if you want a cold beer in the hot sun.
The menu is limited but carefully curated, with lots of great options for outdoor eating. The pretzel sticks with cheese and beer mustard ($5) are addictive. The grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes ($10) and the taco special ($12) are examples of simple food prepared well. I enjoyed an Alpenglow ($4), a beer with pomegranate syrup that looks like a sunset but tastes like, well, a beer.
A final thought on popular patios. Most operate on a first-come, first-served basis. This leads to a lot of unpleasant jockeying for position while waiting for an open table. Vulture-like perching over occupied tables is one side effect of the system and flat-out cheating is another. More than once, we saw groups snake into tables that other people had been waiting for. Outdoor dining should be relaxing -- not an exercise in wiliness. Where common courtesy isn't the rule, a part-time hostess or even a self-policed sign-up sheet could help take the stress out of table shopping.
Alaskans, don't let this spring lull you into a false sense of security. We've been burned before. Treat every sunny day as if it will be the last of the season. Grab a friend, have an adventure in the wilderness and reward yourself with a snack and a cold one on your deck of choice. And remember -- those bugs in your wine? They're just extra protein.
Next week: Snow Goose, Rustic Goat, Bernie's Bungalow Lounge and more.
By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent