Willy’s Ale Room in Acton has plenty of beer on tap and a great menu. Photos by Bob Keyes

ACTON — As much as my wife and I like to eat in restaurants that we already know and like, we also enjoy finding hidden gems, hideaways and roadside retreats that are popular with the people who know them best. One of our favorite things to do on the weekend is to drive through rural York County in search of a place for lunch that’s new to us.

A few weeks ago on a rainy Sunday afternoon, we stopped in on Willy’s Ale Room in Acton, a rural community that shares a border with New Hampshire and neighbors Shapleigh. Acton is in lake country, and Willy’s reflects the beach-party lifestyle of many communities that are known for summer fun. It feels like a clubhouse, with a decor of light wood and the bright lights of beer advertisements and TVs tuned to sports. License plates from across the country adorn the ceiling. There are pool tables, games, a big dance floor and plenty of room for a band.

Chicken tenders at Willy’s Ale Room in Acton.

I counted more than a dozen beer taps, including one from my hometown brewery, Corner Point in Berwick, and many more varieties of bottled beer, ranging from routine to high-end. The place is huge, with four dining rooms. It feels like a sports pub, a dance hall and a fine-dining restaurant wrapped into one, which may explain its popularity. It can satisfy many needs and desires.

Our positive first impressions of the physical space and overall atmosphere extended to our embracing of the menu, which surprised us with its depth and range. There’s a lot more happening here than predictable pub food, though ultimately we opted for a burger and chicken. But it took us a long time to get there. The appetizer menu impressed us. In addition to the usual offerings – chicken tenders, potato skins, etc. – Willy’s temps diners with apps like battered baby dills, “bang-bang” shrimp, bahn mi tacos, cheesesteak egg rolls and pan-fried dumplings.

We were impressed with the ambition of the menu, and settled on the short-rib poutine ($10), made with braised short rib, waffle fries, cheddar, gravy, queso fresco and pickled onions. But, alas, this dish wasn’t available. We were bummed, but understanding – though we decided to pass on appetizers altogether because our second choice wasn’t as obvious and the sandwich menu was pretty compelling.

I went back and forth debating among Willy’s Philly ($12), a cubano ($13) and Eating Nemo ($12), a cute-cruel name for a haddock sandwich. When put on the spot, I ended up going for the bacon-egg-and-cheese burger ($13), which sounded just different enough to make me curious, with 24-hour pork, crispy onion strings, argula, fontina cheese and roasted garlic aioli, with fries.

After much internal debate, my wife asked for the short-rib grilled cheese (also $13), which sounded really good with its side of gravy for dipping. But that also was 86-ed – the waiter explained that the short-rib ran out on Saturday night. No matter how much she wanted it, Vicki wasn’t getting short ribs. She settled for something she knew would she would like, a fried chicken basket, served with fries ($13).

But there was no hiding her disappointment that her top two choices were not available. My pork burger satisfied both my hunger and my curiosity. The meat was tender, and I loved the texture of the crispy onion rings and tangy complement of the pork. The egg was slightly runny, which was perfect for my taste. It was a lot to eat.

Vicki’s tenders were hot in temperature, as ordered, but there was nothing spectacular about them. Our fries were hot, crisp and not oily. Both of our dishes were served in paper-lined plastic baskets, with ho-hum presentation.

Willy’s also serves pizzas and calzones, and offers a main-course menu with pan-roasted salmon, a Korean pork tenderloin and pad thai.

Clearly, Willy’s Ale Room has it going on. We were happy to catch up with the party.

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