Shrimp Po Boy Sliders and mac ‘n’ cheese are among the new offerings on the menu at the Port Chester train station bar and restaurant, recently renamed Heartland Black + Gold. Craft beer remains a staple.Richard Abel|Westmore News
Shrimp Po Boy Sliders and mac ‘n’ cheese are among the new offerings on the menu at the Port Chester train station bar and restaurant, recently renamed Heartland Black + Gold. Craft beer remains a staple.

Richard Abel|Westmore News
It was with great anticipation that the Port Chester railroad station opened as a restaurant, beer hall and garden a year and a half ago. After eight months of construction, Port Chester Hall & Beer Garden was a whole new use of a public building that dates back to 1890. Jon Bloostein, founder and CEO of Heartland Holdings, transformed a busy Metro-North station as well as an historic building that was in dire need of rehabilitation into a modern restaurant with an Old World feel.

The restaurant and beer garden opened on May 27, 2014. Last spring and summer business was booming as curious local residents and commuters checked out the new establishment and were interested to see how the train station had been reborn. It was particularly popular on the nights when there were concerts at the Capitol Theatre. As the train station is located across the street from our office, we had watched the construction every step of the way. It was the perfect place for the Westmore News 50th anniversary after party last August, the main event having been held at Alba's Ristorante on North Main Street.

Port Chester Hall has also been a great spot for Port Chester High School reunion gatherings and a central place to meet people coming to the village from out of town for drinks and/or dinner. It's a fun location to gather with friends or employees at the end of the day.

Besides the historic railroad station, which serves as the food hall, the restaurant incorporates an all-weather, custom-built pavilion with a steel design consistent with the train tracks and an open-air beer garden complete with trees, a fireplace and surrounded by fencing and shrubbery. The pavilion and garden are especially pleasant during the spring, summer and fall. There is a huge stone fireplace in the pavilion, flaps come down on the sides to protect it from the elements and overhead heaters warm the air so it can be used during the winter months if you don't mind eating with your coat on.

"There is nothing else like it in the country that combines these three elements in an operating train station," Bloostein, whose company operates all Heartland Breweries in New York City, Flatiron Hall, Houston Hall and Bernheim & Schwartz across from Columbia University in addition to the Port Chester location.

Heartland spent $5 million to transform the Port Chester station into a restaurant and beer garden including all the furnishings and reproduction of vintage murals.

Port Chester Hall was designed as a food and beer hall, with Bloostein having poured a lot of himself into its creation, combining the historical aspect of both beer and trains. It included his personal collection of old taps from wooden kegs hanging on a wall of the restaurant plus framed photographs of trains and a small portion of his extensive collection of German and American steins decorating the awesome private party room which makes you feel like you've stepped back in time.

It was necessary to maintain the station's functionality, so the original ticket window was painted and decorated with a reproduction of an old railroad mural. It is still used by Metro-North to sell tickets.

Although I never faced it, Port Chester Hall got a reputation for slow service early on, probably because the small kitchen is on one end of the building and the pavilion and garden on the other. Even if the less than speedy service has been remedied, which in my experience it has, with social media any negatives are hard to overcome. If the restaurant is to succeed on a long-term basis, and I certainly hope it does, it's important to pay attention to those comments and take steps to make sure customers are happy. There's too much competition in the restaurant business, and particularly in Port Chester, not to do so.

That being said, my husband, staff and I have had many competent, friendly servers and bartenders from the day Port Chester Hall opened and even as recently as this week.

From Port Chester Hall to Heartland Black + Gold

In an effort to gain wider appeal, and to be seen as a more hip eating and drinking spot, Port Chester Hall suddenly became Heartland Black + Gold on Sept. 12 of this year. The train theme was largely removed as were the beer steins in favor of an eclectic exhibit of original photography and prints of iconic figures.

"We wanted the new design and name of Heartland Black + Gold to have a more broad-based appeal to Port Chester and the surrounding communities," said Bloostein. "The bistro look and unique, cool photographs, as well as the new menu selections and pricing have done a good job in creating that appeal."

I preferred the local name and old photographs, murals and breweriana, but the historical significance of the renovated landmarked building remains intact. It's still a cool, attractive establishment all the way around, from the original train station fitted with stained glass and vintage light fixtures, to the pavilion with its own attractive bar separate from the one indoors, to the garden. And there's something romantic and relevant about hearing the trains go by as you eat and drink.

Gone are the beer mugs and three sizes of beer which have been replaced with one size, served in a pint glass, often with the name of the beer you're drinking on it, for $7, $1 cheaper than the pint-sized mug offered previously. By popular demand, the classic large pretzel with cheddar ale dip that was a big hit at Port Chester Hall is back on the menu.

Black + Gold refers to the black and golden ales and lagers available at Heartland, all their own crafted brews which have been developed over 20 years and are brewed by Kelly Taylor, Heartland's award-winning brew master. A harvest favorite for fall is the Smiling Pumpkin Ale, made with honey-roasted pumpkins and simmered with ginger, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. That one is delicious and slightly sweet as is the award-wining Farmer Jon's Oatmeal Stout, which is hearty and creamy with hints of espresso and dark chocolate. There is also an Indian River Light, Cornhusker Lager, Harvest Wheat Beer, a Red Rooster Ale and an Indiana Pale Ale.

Besides beer, you can order 12 cool cocktails priced at $10 such as The Black + Gold which is made with fresh mint, orange and rye whiskey. Looking for something light, earlier this week I sampled the Traffic Jam Escape, for which we were charged $9, made with Absolut Vanilla, Absolut Mandarin, mango, St. Germain and pineapple garnished with orange wedges and a cherry. Lovely but perhaps more of a summer drink. Next time when I'm not going back to work I would go for the El Presidente Margarita made with Patron tequila, Grand Marnier, lime, orange juice and St. Germain or The Irish Blonde made with Jameson, Triple Sec and ginger ale.

New menu offers more price points and choices

The new menu, which I find generally more appealing and definitely more varied than the old one, is arranged in three pricing categories so diners can make selections from $7, $11 and $15 sections including dishes like Moroccan Turkey Meatballs, Kobe Sliders, and Maui Tacos x2. There are also six dinners that range from $18.50 for Half Roasted Organic Chicken with fresh herb marinade, sweet corn mashed potatoes, crisp onion straws and chipotle bbq sauce to $21.50 for slow smoked center cut pork ribs, chipotle bbq sauce and mashed potatoes or Smothered Steak (grilled black angus steak, sautéed mushrooms and onions served with mashed potatoes).

While I haven't sampled it myself, others who have tell me the guacamole, which comes with chips ($7), is some of the best around. Also in the $7 category, I can recommend the Goat Cheese Filled Dates with Spiced Walnuts, which brings three chewy organic medjool dates filled with soft goat cheese in a salad of arugula, red onions, chopped scallions and crumbled spiced walnuts with a slightly creamy dressing and the Freshly Made Hummus with lemon oil and a taste of cumin which comes with carrot sticks and tortilla chips for dipping. The Cup O'Beef Chili, a good portion for what is listed as a cup, was also a hit with my party on a recent cold night. It is made with two types of beans, chopped meat and has just the right amount of spice.

In the $11 category, of course the Giant Soft Pretzel with warm cheddar ale dip (skip the spicy honey mustard) is a must, especially if you're drinking beer. The Shrimp Po Boy Sliders are also excellent. Three corn meal crusted shrimp are flattened and served on mini buns topped with shredded cabbage, tomato, pickle and creole mayo. Very fresh tasting and perfect for shrimp lovers like me. The Lump Crab Cakes (you get two) were small and disappointing.

For $15, I can recommend the Lemon Chicken Breast which actually brings two large boneless chicken breasts cooked in a tasty lemon herb sauce served over sautéed green beans cooked to just the right firmness and jasmine rice. My husband and I also liked the Penne with Shrimp and Mussels. We weren't prepared for the spicy tomato sauce, although it is clearly stated on the menu, but it was excellent. There were also plenty of tender shrimp (8) and mussels (6).

The Steak Sandwich, a generous portion of marinated beef tenderloin topped with melted pepper jack cheese, crispy onion straws and chipotle mayo on a brioche roll had good taste, was cooked perfectly medium, was not too gloppy and came with lots of crunchy fries.

I enjoyed the Mac 'n' Cheese, made with a creamy three-cheese sauce, chunks of chicken, crumbled bacon, scallions and a cheddar cheese crust, but it was rich and filling, so I couldn't finish the generous portion.

And don't forget dessert. On my most recent visit I had a luscious and attractive layered chocolate mousse and whipped cream with salted caramel ice cream in a dish on the side ($7.95).

Hours and parking

We were surprised to find that Heartland is closed on Sundays and Mondays for the winter and will reopen seven days a week next summer. The current hours are Tuesday through Thursday from 4-10 p.m., Friday from 4 p.m. to 12 midnight and Saturday from 12 noon to 12 midnight.

Parking is rarely a problem because even though there are designated spots in the commuter lot in front of the restaurant for Heartland, you can really park anywhere in the lot you can find a space during the hours the restaurant and bar is open and won't be ticketed.