The Empire, in business for a couple of years now, seats about 40 folks in attractive surroundings. In addition to tables for two or four, there's an inviting L-shaped bar that wouldn't be a disappointing place to perch if all the tables were occupied.
Also a plus, at least in my book: No overhead TV screens could be seen from our table. Go watch your favorite sporting franchise's competitions somewhere else.
But if you do, you'll be missing out on some of the tastiest pub food in these parts, served in linebacker-size portions.
The word is apparently out, because the Empire was busy on our recent midafternoon visit -- a time of day we expected the place to be quiet.
The only server on duty promptly took our drink orders from the 20 or so beers on tap, with the emphasis on India pale ales. Also available are wine and hard cider, but beer's the thing here. You can get three good-size tasters for $5 -- a fine value.
After taking our order, the server began chatting with a customer at the bar who, we gathered, was an off-duty co-worker. She poured him a beer. Shop talk ensued. Note to servers: Don't talk shop in earshot of customers. (And while we're it, please don't address customers of either gender as "guys.")
After a few minutes, which felt much longer, the server finally noticed the absence of glasses of beer on our table. Judging from the look on her face and the movement of her lips, I believe she said something similar to "Oh, shoot."
That proved to be the only hiccup during an enjoyable visit.
The list of sandwiches and wraps include a number of offerings in the $10 to $13 range, all of which come with your choice of soup, salad or french fries. The house burger is topped with stout-sauteed onions, cheddar cheese and mushrooms ($10). Also tempting was a pork sandwich with a sweet sauce of roasted jalapeno and peach ($11).
We decided we didn't need the soup-salad-fries side and instead chose a couple of offerings on the appetizer menu: sweet and spicy chicken drumettes ($11) and grilled chicken quesadilla with chipotle mayonnaise ($10).
The appetizers' portion sizes surprised us. Food filled two large dinner plates. The chicken drumettes required extra napkins, which our server quickly delivered without prompting. The quesadilla was nicely grilled, with an appealing warm and soft interior of chicken and mayo that carried a bit of heat.
The portions were ample, but even better, the apps' execution was solid.
Other choices include the sort of things you expect to find on pub menus: coconut prawns with sweet Thai chili ($10), nachos ($9) and crab cakes ($11).
For dinner at the Empire, you've got a selection of steaks and pastas to choose from, in the $17 to $23 range. There's also daily specials for lunch and dinner on the board.
The Empire is well worth a quick exit off I-5 if you're looking for a bite to eat, a brew to sip and some local color in the downtown district of a classic small city, instead of one of the chains at the mall.
Empire Ale House
314 W. Gates St., Mount Vernon; 360-336-9944; www.empirealehouse.com.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Specialty: Appetizers, paninis, burgers, pasta and steaks.
Vegetarian options: Yes.
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