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You Won't Mind Going to this 'Office'

Cranford's local beer bar and grill has undergone a facelift and an upgrade to the menu.

You may have driven past on South Avenue in Cranford a few times. You may have even stopped in for a bite or a beer sometime in the past few years, leaving with the memory of an average pub experience. If that's the case, forget everything you thought you knew about The Office and be prepared for a few surprises.

The 25-year-old local bar and grill has undergone a facelift that is much more than new fixtures and a fresh coat of paint. The revamped menu gives you a fresh take on a pub's comfort food, such as wings and burgers, but more adventurous eaters won't be disappointed by fare with Asian or south-of-the-border flair.

Of course, the new decor doesn't hurt the experience. The restaurant, once dark and moody, now has a bright feel. Italian-born owners Biagio and Anthony Scotto - who both reside in Morris County - have renovated five of the seven Office restaurants in the chain including Summit, with Cranford's upgrade being the most recent this past November. Westfield is also slated for upgrades in 2012.

The bar is stocked with dozens of beers and liquor and the friendly bartenders are armed with a ridiculous amount of knowledge about the offerings. While I told our bartender that I am a beer drinker and didn't like "umbrella" drinks, she suggested we try a Candied Apple Cosmo. Oh, what the heck…it's the holidays, right? I was pleasantly surprised and decided my evening was going to be about trying new things, including a new Office appetizer, soft pretzel breadsticks served with The Office Amber Lager cheddar bacon cheese dip (say that three times fast).

We would've been content to munch on the warm, soft breadsticks and bacony, cheesy dip all night while we watched the New Jersey Devils' game on one of the many flatscreen TVs mounted around the bar. But as we relaxed, we were greeted by Kathleen Janssen, a field marketing manager for Villa Enterprise Management. Villa took over The Office chain - all 7 locations - from CB Holdings six months ago.

For Office stalwarts, don't sweat it, they haven't taken away crowd-pleasing appetizers — from the spinach-and-artichoke dip to the fried mozzarella — but try the new options. The wings are crispy and plump, but don't just settle for the "buffalo" flavoring. Opt for the ginger teriyaki or "sweet heat" (my personal favorite, with a hearty kick to match its tangy taste).

While all of this offerings are great, they've got nothing on the tuna tower. Sushi and sashimi fans will love this. An artsy tower made of super-fresh ahi tuna dressed in a balsamic glaze, balsamic-dressed baby arugula and buttery avocado topped with crisp wontons. Knock the tower over and scoop it up with the wonton chips. I swear, I craved this for days after our visit. The artisan grilled pizza is also top notch. Grilled, thin crust pizza with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and topping choices from meat to veggies. It's not greasy and it has just enough of everything - the crust, by the way, is fantastic. We also sampled asian lettuce wraps - bib lettuce that you stuff yourself with shrimp or chicken, veggies and avocado. Go ahead, you have permission to play with your food.

If you want to go beyond drinks and appetizers, The Office also has a full menu with everything from ribs, burgers and salads to steak and pasta. Try the ISO (inside-out) burger. A take on the "Jucy Lucy" cheese-stuffed burger that originated in South Minneapolis, the ISO is filled with aged cheddar and topping with the typical fixings on a toasted brioche roll.

The cajun pasta was also pretty amazing. Think gumbo — andouille sausage, chicken, shrimp, veggies and a spicy tomato cream sauce — but throw in papardelle pasta instead of rice. We couldn't keep our forks out of this one. There's also grilled salmon, steak selections, fish tacos, chicken fingers, fajitas, fish and chips and an asian sesame noodle dish.

The sandwiches — or "handhelds" as they're called on the menu — range from turkey avocado, to an ahi tuna sandwich, Thai shrimp wrap and grilled chicken. And then there's "The Kid," which is a gourmet twist on a grilled cheese with tomato and bacon on brioche, served alongside tomato bisque. Remember eating grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch on chilly fall days?

If you're craving something healthy with a bit more green to it, give one of the salads a try. They have greens topped with steak, there's a Thai sesame, a tostada and even a harvest salad that has warm apple cider vinaigrette. That's at the top of my list next time I have lunch there.

Did I mention the side dishes? Best mac-and-cheese I've ever had. This stuff would make Paula Dean jealous. Cavatappi pasta (little corkscrews) baked with tangy gruyere, sharp cheddar and American cheese and topped with a Ritz cracker crust. Oh yeah. Gooey, buttery, creamy. The stuff in the blue box should be ashamed of itself for not measuring up.

But lest we forget that The Office is, above all, a beer bar. They boast 22 beers on tap with 12 selections at each location that are specific to that establishment. Chosen by getting a feel for what patrons at each location want, many of the beers are local. The bottled selection is, in a word, vast. Your typical game-day brews such as Budweiser and Coors share space with other ales, Belgians, porters, stouts and seasonal beer. The managers and servers at The Office know their beer and can usually offer their opinions on which beer pairs well with each item on the menu. Give the Ithaca Apricot Wheat a try if you want something on the lighter side. If you want to warm up with something richer and much darker, Young's Double Chocolate Stout is the way to go.

There's a also a good selection of wines and cocktails. I can't wait to try the jalapeno margarita on my next visit and the White Chocolate Peppermint Patty Martini makes a pretty great after-dinner drink.

A couple of quick notes: The Office has trivia nights on Tuesdays, where patrons can win prizes. The music is not too loud, but like most bars, the volume is raised after 8 p.m. If you're looking for more of a quiet, sit-down dinner, the renovated dining room is the way to go. They have some pretty budget-friendly offerings on their happy hour menu, and food is served until midnight. The bar closes at 2 a.m.

Get your grub on: The Office Beer Bar and Grill is located at 1-7 South Ave. in Cranford. Call them at 908- 272-3888, find them online at http://www.office-beerbar.com/ or follow them on Twitter, FourSquare or become a Facebook Fan.

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