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Previous Pint Pleasures - March 18, 2003

guinness eileen

Barney's Beanery, Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, CA, USA

guinness eileen

The Snake Pit Ale House, 7529 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, CA, USA

These are stressful times at the moment, not only in the world but in my own head. I'm hoping and praying this will be my last Pacific Coast review for a while, because if luck shines down on me I'll be returning to the UK very soon to continue my reviews of British pubs. In the meantime I thought I'd review a couple of pubs located miles and universes away from the countryside of Yorkshire and Derbyshire -- in other words, in Hollywood, California.

A week ago I accompanied my Uncletom, a roving bizarreal artiologist and Doctor of Dithonomics, to two art exhibitions in Los Angeles. At the Petersen Automotive Museum, located appropriately close to the La Brea Tarpits, we frolicked -- or I should say I frolicked and my uncle strolled -- through a delightful exhibit of art cars. Curated by Harrod Blank, famous for his Camera Van among other creations, the exhibit features cars and vans covered with beads, glass, brass objects, and musical instruments as well as vehicles that look like giant telephones, high heeled shoes, and electric guitars. After this feast for the sensibilities we continued over to the Koplin Del Rio Gallery on Robertson to see an exhibit of Sandow Birk who has transposed Dante's Inferno to the streets of Los Angeles.

After this inspiring afternoon we were naturally thirsty and needed a beer. Our first stop was the famous Barney's Beanery, located on Santa Monica Boulevard east of La Cienega. Anyone who's ever lived in Los Angeles knows Barney's Beanery as an historical landmark. First opened in 1920, it is reportedly the third oldest surviving restaurant in Los Angeles. John "Barney" Anthony, who opened his first Beanery in the Bay Area after World War I, relocated the beanery to a poinsettia field in Hollywood on what was then a rural stretch of Route 66. It derived its name from the fact that weary travellers during the Depression years would stop in to fortify themselves with chili beans. The place soon become famous for its chili, burgers, and onion soup, and has been a favourite hangout throughout the decades for movie stars, rock stars, writers, and artists: a piece of the American West smack in the middle of Tinseltown.

Barney's Beanery boasts a history to impress even the best of name-droppers. In the early days Clara Bow, John Barrymore, and Jean Harlow were fixtures, and by the 1940s Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, and Bette Davis would stop in regularly. In the 1950s it was a hangout for the Beats and rock and roll fans; by the 1960s it had become a gathering hole for counterculture Pop Artists, musicians, and actors including Ed Ruscha, Ed Kienholz, Dennis Hopper, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix. It is rumoured that Janis Joplin had her final drink here (in Booth Number 34) before she died. And in Los Angeles' punk and new wave era of the late 1970s and 1980s it was a favourite of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Blasters, and Jane's Addiction among other bands -- and, of course, movie stars and screenwriters such as Elliot Gould, Mel Gibson, Bette Midler, Quentin Tarantino, and the Brat Pack. And the Beanery has been featured in countless films, documentaries, TV programs, and books as well as being the subject of many works of art.

But what, you ask, does this have to do with beer? Well, if you happen to find yourself wandering around Hollywood with a mighty thirst, Barney's Beanery is a good place to stop in for a beer. They offer over 85 different selections including micros and imports, with a wide range on tap and the rest in bottles. They also have a large menu featuring 45 varieties of chili and a zillion different ways to eat French fries and potato skins.

When Uncletom and I stopped in I had a pint of Stone IPA (6.9% ABV, Stone Brewing Company, San Marcos, CA), which I've been enjoying in bottles during my California stay. (My other current California favourite is Lagunitas IPA.) My pint was crisp and refreshing, a good finish to a California art kind of day, and my Uncletom was quite content with his pint of Boddington's. Because it was late afternoon and we were a bit peckish we shared an appetizer plate of breaded mushrooms with a very confused identity: they were served with Cheddar cheese, guacamole, and marinara sauce. Although I'm quite a mixed breed myself I couldn't quite bring myself to try the guacamole and marinara sauce simultaneously. Okay, so call me a culinary segregationist...

Barney's Beanery also features pool tables, video games, and a small deck out front for smokers. And the collages on the tables are a classic touch.

Just a short walk south is Melrose Avenue, described by local columnist Pleasant Gehman as the Los Angeles version of London's Kings Road. She's referring to the fact that it was very trendy in the punk era. I remember spending time on Santa Monica Boulevard and Melrose Avenue back when I was somewhat of a punker. My friends Kimmer and Michael and I would drive up from Long Beach, singing loudly to our tapes of old Motown hits as we cruised down the freeway, and then we'd spend the afternoon browsing through unusual footwear in cluttered boutiques and thrift shops before going to see all the cool LA bands at the clubs.

Today Melrose is still a trendy place littered with scenesters and neon-haired youth. And the boutiques are still there along with the comedy clubs, tattoo parlours, and upscale cafes. It's not really the type of place you'd expect to find a regular California pub with microbrews and an affordable menu of light meals. But there it is, smack in the middle of the trendy glitz: the Snake Pit Ale House. And regardless of the name it's quite a comfortable and inviting oasis. It makes you feel as though you're in Seattle's naturally arty Fremont district rather than the star-studded naugahyde pop-tart that West Hollywood has become.

The Snake Pit has a line of taps featuring microbrews and imports. Since none of the ales particularly excited me, and I wasn't in the mood for a stout, I had two pints of Stella Artois, the only lager I actually enjoy drinking (aside from Kanterbr£u, which doesn't seem to be available outside France). Uncletom and I relaxed at a rear table and enjoyed the relaxing, nontrendy atmosphere while listening to a fine selection of music including some old Waterboys hits. Ah, yes, we never would have discovered this place if I hadn't located it in my uncle's Zagat guide to Los Angeles nightspots. It's definitely a SoCal pubgoer's oasis in the midst of Hollywood glitz.

And no, I don't know where the name comes from -- although I didn't investigate very deeply. And it was a weekday evening, after all.