Owners of Craft Public House on Athens’ eastside live for the chance to serve local fare

For Rob Longstreet and Brandon Kelly, owners of Craft Public House on Athens’ eastside, the restaurant business is more than just a job.

It’s a way of life.

The 36-year-old Longstreet, an Athens native, has worked in the service industry since the age of 15, beginning his career at Ryan’s Family Steak House. Kelly, also 36 and a native of Chicago, launched his culinary vocation at 14, scooping cool treats at Baskin Robbins.

The two have brought their considerable experience (which included a stint working in Arizona) under one roof in Craft Public House, modeled — to a degree — after an Arizona restaurant called Citizen Public House. Opening last July, Longstreet and Kelly sought to provide a unique eating experience that also includes a surfeit of imaginative cocktails and an Athens-centric selection of beers.

“We’re not a fine-dining restaurant, but we have food that is on par, I think, with a lot of fine-dining restaurants,” Kelly says. “It’s been referred to as upscale comfort food. Modern international, I think, is probably more accurate. We decided on the gastropub concept so we weren’t stuck just doing Italian food or just Mexican food, so there is a multi-national influence across the entire menu.”

“There’s a lot of room for movement and lot of room for doing creative things,” Longstreet adds.

Creativity abounds

Creativity is abundant on the winter menu, which is expected to remain in effect until the early spring, but more on that later. Craft Public House touts a hearty assortment of small plates, salads and sandwiches and entrees. Kelly said most popular item on the menu is the Craft Burger, a half-pounder on a Luna Baking bun with smoked provolone, pickles and tomato jam made in-house, and hot house tomato.

“We make a tomato jam that’s sort of our ketchup, if you will,” he says. “We make our pickles in-house, so that’s sort of the crux of our concept. We take care at every step of the way in the dish where the final product is easily recognizable and something you’re familiar with, but it’s better than what you’re used to.”

Other favorites include the handmade pasta with roasted garlic mascarpone cream and roasted cauliflower; the Lamb Disco starter, lamb meatballs in a piquant tomato jam; grilled Georgia quail, a coriander- and roasted-garlic bird; pork belly lettuce wraps (jokingly referred to as “meat candy” by Kelly); butternut squash risotto; scallops with purple Peruvian potatoes; and the grass-fed New York strip.

The same care used to prepare meals is apparent in sourcing of ingredients. Both Longstreet and Kelly are adamant that they like to trade locally, most notably with Collective Harvest — a multi-farm CSA in the Clarke, Madison and Oglethorpe county area — and Woodland Gardens of Winterville.

“Both are amazing sources for local produce,” Kelly says. “And it’s what we are able to buy has to play with what’s on our menu and what’s available.”

“We do as much local sourcing as possible,” Longstreet adds. “We’re a local business and we love to support other local businesses. And the fresher, the better. I think it’s a more responsible way of serving the components.”

Local connections

Collaborating with local businesses was also on Longstreet’s mind when it came to Craft Public House’s bar, which showcases the best the Classic City has to offer by pouring brews from Terrapin Beer, Creature Comforts Brewing, Southern Brewing and Copper Creek Brewing.

“It’s one thing to serve local, but it’s another thing to always serve something,” says Longstreet, who was quick to point out that the Craft component to the restaurant’s name wasn’t a comment on the beers offered. “When people walk into the restaurant, I want them to see that we support Athens completely. I will always only have Athens beers on tap — nothing else. As far as cans and bottles go, I will source from Athens as well when possible.”

Terrapin, Creature Comforts and Southern Brewing were all no-brainers, but Copper Creek is a bit of a surprise to the batting order. But as is the case with nearly every restaurateur, there’s a story behind the decision.

“That’s a personal thing for me,” Longstreet says. “I worked for Porterhouse Grill for nine years total and they own Copper Creek and (the departed) Basil Press. Once the folks at Copper Creek decided to pull the trigger and make the beer available to the market and get distributed, I found that out and I was elated. Copper Creek will always stay here, too. That’s personal; that’s supporting my past.”

There are many other beers — bottled and canned — to choose from, and the cocktail section of the menu also offers some inventive treats, including the Prickly Pear Mojito (with prickly pear perfect puree) and the Athena Shandy (with the Creature Comforts’ favorite, blood orange liqueur, tequila, pineapple juice and basil.

“I always like having an herb component in cocktails like that,” Longstreet says. “And the Prickly Pear Mojito was inspired by a drink we had in Tucson, a margarita we had at my old restaurant; I made a mojito out of it.”

Craft Public House also features a popular Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with shrimp and grits and made-to-order donuts proving to be sought-after staples.

In terms of the near future, Kelly says the menu will change by late March, at which time a spring/summer menu will be launched. He plays to keep that intact until early September, at which time he plans a special new collection of dishes.

“After Labor Day, we’ll have been open for a year and our idea is to take the greatest hits from all of our menus and create a core menu that will be around for a long time,” he says. “So people can always know they can always come to Craft and get the shrimp and grits with blackened catfish. And then we’ll focus heavily on doing specials, which we don’t currently do because our menu is changing.”

“We do a good job of making normal things very, very special,” Longstreet says. “It’s all about care.”

For more information on Craft Public House, located at 1040 Gaines School Road in the Ansonborough Athens complex near Cedar Shoals Drive, visit www.craftathens.com or call 706-850-4363.

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