CoffeeBeer >> Pint Pleasures >> Previous Beer Columns >> 3 Brit-Friendly California Pubs

Previous Pint Pleasures - January 6, 2003

guinness eileen

Lucky Baldwin's, 17 South Raymond Avenue, Pasadena, CA, USA

guinness eileen

O'Malley's, 140 Main Street, Seal Beach, CA, USA

guinness eileen

The Pub, 1492 Solano Avenue, Albany, CA, USA

As you might be able to discern from my most recent coffee columns, I returned to the US for a few months. As this is just a temporary situation I've continued to write my columns about pubs in Yorkshire. This week, however, I'm going to write about three California pubs which are oases for the culture-shocked visitor from Britain or Europe.

On the day I flew from Manchester to Los Angeles I knew I was in for a bit of culture shock -- but I wasn't quite prepared for an avalanche. For one thing, the area I left in Yorkshire is scenic, hilly, and urban, with lush countryside within walking distance. Where I am staying in the Los Angeles area is, in contrast, flat, brown, and ugly, a vast paved suburbia where the majority of the population are flabby and overweight and pedestrians simply don't exist. That old song was right: nobody walks in LA!

And those accents! The last time I lived in SoCal, back in the 1980s, people still used consonants when they spoke. I don't mean to sound pedantic, but what's wrong with using both vowels and consonants? Not only does it make for a richer English language, but it's a lot easier to respond appropriately and constructively when someone says "Excuse me, but you've just parked your SUV on my foot!" than when they nasalise "Zgewaaa, uereyueeannhooh!"

Okay, I'll stop California-bashing for now and get straight to the point of this column. For the visiting Brit who loves good pubs and real ale, California may be a bit too much of a shock. For one thing smoking is now banned inside all California bars, which means that unless the bar has an outdoor garden where smoking is allowed (yes, some bars actually prohibit smoking outside!), smokers must go out to the street or the car park in order to smoke. And the decades-old law prohibiting people from taking their drinks outside the bar limits still stands. What this means is that if you want to go to a pub or bar and have a drink and a cigarette, you can drink your drink inside but not outside, and you can smoke your cigarette outside but not inside, and ne'er the twain shall meet. Now, is this the ultimate in absurdity or what?

And as far as real ale goes, if you're visiting Los Angeles, forget it! You'll find pubs with hand pumps up north in San Francisco, but you'll also find a better quality of microbrew and pub clientele there as well. In Southern California the best you can do is hope to find an interesting microbrew on CO2. (I would personally recommend the Pale Ale at the Bonaventure Brewpub in downtown LA, or a pint of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale wherever you can find it.)

In my short time here I have discovered three distinctly different pubs which are refuges from the typical California poor-excuse-for-a-pub scene. The one with the most British atmosphere is Lucky Baldwin's, located in Pasadena's Old Town. Opened 22 years ago by David Farnworth, an expate Brit, the pub was named after Elias J. "Lucky" Baldwin, a 19th century real estate speculator and local character. There are a lot of beers on tap from England, Belgium, and American microbreweries, and occasionally they'll have something local on the hand pump, although I have yet to experience that pleasure. The menu features traditional pub food with fish and chips being their speciality.

On my two recent visits I had a pint of Pedigree (4.5% ABV, Marston, Thompson & Evershed, Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire), which is served on nitro (i.e. smooth flow) from a fake hand pump. Although cask British ales have been shipped in recent years to the East Coast and Chicago it will be some time before they reach the West Coast, so this is about the closest you can get. It was pleasant enough simply because it wasn't fizzy, and I think that's about the best you can hope for in the Los Angeles area.

Lucky Baldwin's has a pleasant smoker's patio which looks out onto a tree-lined pedestrian alley. If you're visiting Los Angeles or Hollywood you should definitely make a trip over to Lucky Baldwin's. If you need any other reasons to go to Pasadena, I can think of three: the Los Angeles Arboretum, the Huntington Library and Gardens, and the mountains to the north. Pasadena itself is a nice place to visit as well, just as long as it isn't in the heart of summer when it can be quite hot and smoggy. This city -- famous for the Tournament of Roses and JPL -- grew out of the San Gabriel Mission and was established as a city in 1883 after being settled by a group of Indiana natives. And now there are a few British natives as well.

If you're staying in the Long Beach or Orange County area and feel like a pint of lager, a cigarette, and some friendly chat with British and Continental expates, check out the back patio at O'Malley's in Seal Beach. Although this place looks and feels like nothing more than an Orange County beachtown bar it's slightly different. Instead of the usual surfer dudes and tanned babes munching fish tacos and getting head starts on their melanomas, you'll find a regular population of European expates working on their SoCal accents and lifestyles. Although the locals call this an "Irish pub", most of the staff are from Belfast which defeats the definition just a bit.

Several beers are on tap, including Guinness, Bass, Harp, and Anchor Steam Beer. But since I've visited the pub several times with my Belgian and Belgophile friends we drink pints of Stella Artois (5.2% ABV, Leuven, Belgium) which, although Belgian, happens to be the best lager in Britain. We gather on the back heated patio with all the smokers and expates, and everyone else out there seems to have recently travelled to Europe, or wants to, or at least has relatives in Europe. So it's a good place to relax, have a few pints, and be homesick. If you're hungry food is served all day and night. And on a cold winter's evening there's a roaring fire in the outdoor fireplace as well.

While in Seal Beach you may as well take a walk on the Seal Beach Pier, the second longest pier in California. Or catch a film at the Bay Theatre, one of the few original cinemas in the area that hasn't been torn down and replaced with an ugly cineplex. Or just take a walk along the boardwalk or on the beach and watch the surfers, sunbathers, and golfers. (Yes, there are some silly people at the beach...)

If you're visiting the Bay Area -- or anywhere in the vicinity of San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, or Marin County -- try to make it to the East Bay town of Albany. Situated just northwest of Berkeley, Albany was incorporated in 1908 as the "City of Ocean View" after a group of armed and dangerous women turned back an army of invading rubbish trucks. Apparently Berkeley residents were dumping their garbage in what would later be christened Albany. Like a phoenix -- or perhaps a lush crop of compost-fed tomatoes -- the town rose out of its humble origins into the home of Pub.

Although listed as "The Pub" in the phone book and on interior signs, since the outside sign says simply "PUB" that is what my East Bay friends and I prefer to call the place. This is definitely a pub worth visiting simply because it is the only tobacco-friendly bar I know of in California. Back when smoking was legal in drinking establishments in this formerly civilised state, Pub was always crowded with pipe, cigar, and handrolled cigarette smokers enjoying a cognac, a glass of port, or a pint of beer with their smoke. Today Pub still sells all manner of pipe tobacco, pipes and accessories, cigars, rolling tobacco and accessories, and other accoutrements for your pleasurable vices such as flasks, cigarette lighters, bottle openers, and corkscrews. (Well, perhaps not all pleasurable vices -- I didn't see any Racing Snake vibrators for sale...)

And, of course, Pub also sells beer. Although sadly they have no hand pumps they do sell some English beers on CO2 such as Fullers ESB and Bass, and they have a number of imported bottled beers as well. When my Bay Area friend and I visited the pub over the New Year's holiday we had Imperial pints of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (6.8% ABV, Sierra Nevada Brewery, Chico, California), which was pleasant even if fizzy. We sat in a back room where the regulars gather and enjoyed some actual conversation about art, literature, world travel, and high-tech jackets. Yes, this is a typical British-style conversation pub, with no jukebox or piped-in music, where people talk to strangers or, if they prefer, their privacy is respected. A number of British expates hang out here as well, and there is a supply of board games and English-style crisps behind the bar.

In the typical California bar scene where private groups monopolise their own table with loud monologues disguised as dialogues -- the subject matter usually covering Me, Me, and Me -- this type of drinking hole is a rarity. There should be more pubs like this around. If there were, perhaps I wouldn't annoy my American friends so much with all my complaints about being so far from England...