Good Dog Bar and Restaurant

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Craig LaBan calls this burger - with a wellspring of molten bleu cheese - the best cheeseburger in Philadelphia.

Riding down South 15th Street in the drizzle, I saw a beautiful thing. A lawyer in his crisply pinstriped suit was standing beside a whiskery bike messenger in yellow Lycra, and they were commiserating with cigarettes in hand, puffing like chimneys in the rain.

A few months ago, of course, they would have been dry, tucked inside the Good Dog Bar and Restaurant, hands wrapped around cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, spewing enough smoke to make my eyes water. And this only in the five minutes or so it took to pick up my take-out order.

With the city's smoking ban finally enacted in September, though, the Good Dog instantly leaped to the top of my list of places to sit and stay.

Opened three years ago today, the Good Dog (inspired by owner Heather Gleason's chocolate Lab, Dylan) is an edgy, multilevel bar that has become one of our most inventive gastro-pubs, recast and well-scrubbed from its decades-long tenure as an old-man tavern where lawyers would nail their snipped-off ties to the wall after a hung jury. You'll still find plenty of lawyers (nothing against them), but also now a less corporate set, notably messengers, grad students - and a late-night restaurant-worker crowd that comes for a 20 percent industry discount (Sunday through Wednesday, present your pay stubs, please).

At least 90 percent of these folks were seriously peeved by the ban, said Gleason, who has posted a "No Smoking" notice on the front door that laments: "We don't like it any more than you do."

But judging from the bottomless crowds that packed into the snug wooden booths and narrow aisles of the ground-floor bar, the Good Dog isn't hurting. And with food like this, it's no wonder.

Chef Jessica O'Donnell is one of a legion of young refugees from big-ticket fine-dining kitchens (Striped Bass, Avenue B) who have turned their talents to giving old-style comfort foods a clever boost. Her menu rises on high-quality ingredients handled with classic techniques (like the wonderful mashed potatoes and wild mushrooms in demiglace gravy atop the meat loaf). But the Good Dog's essential genius is that virtually its entire menu is based on the notion that everything is better when stuffed with cheese.

The crisply roasted breast of chicken is lined with a creamy pad of herbed mascarpone cheese. Crisply paneed chicken "tenders" get the Cordon Bleu treatment with inner layers of black forest ham and Swiss. Beet salad gets a boost from a disk of goat cheese that is deep-fried into a dairy puck. Even the cheesesteak gets turned inside out, wrapped inside a flaky empanada pastry and touched with a whiff of truffle oil - a frou-frou flourish, no doubt, but surprisingly addictive.

Nothing, though, quite moved me like the Good Dog's burgers, a perfectly juicy balance of primal pleasure and clever cookery that spurred my dinner guest to write a haiku about it the next day. Coincidentally, I had already begun mine. In particular, about the startling moment I took a bite of GD's signature burger topped with caramelized onions and discovered that its perfectly seasoned, lithely handled meat had been miraculously stuffed with a wellspring of molten bleu cheese.

With apologies to Jim Belushi, the original bard of the burger, here's a verse straight from the meat grinder to my pen:

Cheeseburger, I hold

Mischief heart of liquid bleu

You melt into mine

I have another verse about the bun that I won't share. But you get the idea. It was good. Really, really good. O'Donnell used to blend foie gras into her meat, becoming the topic of enduring chat-room legends - but hasn't added any in a year-and-a-half since changing purveyors. It isn't missed in what has my vote for the city's best burger.

There are a number of other worthy dishes to consider, like the spicy tender mussels, or the crispy flatbread pizza of the day (ours was topped with bacon and Vermont cheddar). Or the superb hanger steak with classic potato gratin. Or the homey meat loaf. Or even the monumental double-decker PB & J made with homemade strawberry jam, natural peanut butter and bananas - a carbo-nanza built to slay the wickedest late-night munchies.

The Good Dog's comfort-plate revamps aren't always entirely successful. The mac and cheese has way too much Gruyere tang, and I don't get the blueberries in the side of cornbread. The chicken wings are surprisingly mundane. The pulled pork is slow-roasted, but could be more tender. The tri-colored Rice Krispies treats (chocolate, peanut butter, plain) are unyieldingly dry.

And there is no mistaking the trappings, positive and negative, that remind you the Good Dog is very much a seriously busy bar. On the good side, there are some excellent craft brews and a smart little wine list for anyone who thinks PBR is a watered-down waste of a good can. On the downside, your waiter may show up with an extreme case of slacker bed-head and grizzly two-week whiskers.

These rooms can also be so addlingly loud, the noise can become nearly as bothersome as the long-gone smoke. No, I take that back. The fresh air - now even in the least likely venues - is a most beauteous thing.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.

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