Shawn Crowley recalls a time, 10 or 15 years ago, when enjoying a well-made meal almost always meant “fine dining”—and the wallet-whittling bill that came with it. Thankfully, those days are long gone, and at The Cork & Keg Grill in Raymond, Crowley is channeling that egalitarian ethic into from-scratch food with an everyman brunt.
Opened in 2014, The Cork & Keg pairs savory sandwiches with a beer and wine list to impress even the most confident of connoisseurs. But it’s in the pressed-to-order burgers, house-smoked meats, and daily-made fixins that Crowley’s commitment to quality truly shines through—along with lessons learned from a loving Grandma.
What was your first real restaurant job?
It was my first summer after college, and a friend of my dad got me a job at a seasonal barbecue joint in Old Orchard Beach. Everything there was smoked and made in house, which always stuck with me. But I was just coming off of ankle surgery, hobbling around the kitchen, and I think three of the crew quit in the first few weeks I was there, which left me running the show a lot of the time. It was sort of a sink-or-swim moment, but it didn’t scare me off.
It’s been a bit of a circuitous path for you, from getting a master’s in wildlife biology to managing a Chili’s to starting your own restaurant consulting business. How has your journey informed your vision for The Cork & Keg?
It’s easy to forget how dominant the chain restaurants were for years. But I think the pendulum has swung back completely in the other direction—which is a good thing. One thing that’s always stuck with me is that classic definition of a pub, as in a European-style public house. That’s really what we’re aiming for. If you want to grab a beer with your buddy after work, if you’re grabbing a Reuben on the road, if you’re out with your family, if you want to see live music—this is a place you can do all of that. It’s why we emphasize appetizers and comfort-y, sharable foods. It’s about being with people.
What makes the perfect sandwich?
It’s all about the ingredients, and the love that goes into every part of it. Sandwiches have kind of become things we take for granted. If you’re in a rush, you grab a sandwich, even if that means stock condiments and run-of-the-mill bread. Our approach is totally different. We start with great-quality bread, we roast and smoke all our own meats, we roast the garlic for our house-made garlic mayo. When each part of the sandwich is made with intention, the end product isn’t something you’re going to take for granted.
If your menu had a mantra, what would it be?
It’s better to do 30 things exceptionally well than 100 things just okay. I think a lot of restaurants try to be all things to all people. But if you have 100 things on your menu and you’re doing 200 covers a night, you’re serving a lot of things, at most, two or three times, which means you’re going to be serving the same batch for five or six days. For us, a simpler menu means a fresher menu. We’d rather make things every day and sell it, than try to be all things to all people. If you make something well, the demand will take care of itself.
Where would you say you got your love of cooking?
My Grandma, definitely. Dad was a commercial fisherman, and my parents both worked, so my Grandma babysat a lot. She was English, so the food was never complicated; Monday was always boiled dinner, Tuesday was baked fish—that sort of thing. But she absolutely had that care and love and attention to detail. I was helping her out as early as five or six years old. As I got older, I would cook for my younger siblings quite a bit. So my Grandma definitely had a hand in helping spark that curiosity.
We’re located at 4 Essex Road in Raymond, New Hampshire. We look forward to seeing you!