A Toothsome Trend
A recovering Brit discovers how Pasadena’s Brix 42 and other local gastropubs stack up against their inspirations across the pond.
By Bradley Tuck 10/23/2009
Cheese, I’m informed, is a living organism. I know this to be a fact, as only living things sweat, and in Britain, I have seen many a slice of perspiring cheese. Were you to venture into any pub in the British Isles, sometime before the mid-’90s, chances are that you would find on its menu something called a Ploughman’s Lunch. This would consist of some rather good crusty bread, a few cold cuts of meat, perhaps a piece of pork pie, a dollop of Branston Pickle and a piece of cheddar sweating so profusely, it wouldn’t be remiss to ask if it had just been cooking up a batch of meth in the pub bathroom. The term Ploughman’s Lunch might conjure up visions of a hearty respite from an honorable day’s toil in the fields, but the gray pallor of the meat proffered might lead one to suggest that the establishment rename its offering “Gravedigger’s Remorse.”
British food has long been the object of scorn and derision, and with good reason. It would seem as though most cooks in the average café or restaurant had been trained in a gulag — and then forgotten the better part of what they’d learned. Flaccid heads of broccoli of an indeterminate color lay comatose, their living will ignored, next to meat as devoid of moisture as our nearest neighboring planet, and about as familiar. Mashed potatoes pocked with alarming lumps of dark gray languish in a pool of gravy, resembling not so much food as an incapacitated morbidly obese person shivering in a cold bath.
Then, midway through the ’90s, there was a revolution.
The Eagle, on Farringdon Road in London’s Clerkenwell district, was this revolution’s culinary Bastille. A large imposing pub, frequented by journalists from the nearby offices of The Guardian and local artists who had colonized the neighborhood’s then-inexpensive lofts, The Eagle offered great honest food, good draft ales and decent wines by the glass in an atmosphere devoid of the hand-wringing unctuousness then characteristic of fine dining spots. And because people love and understand a label, the term “gastropub” was born. Contentious by definition, the word was coined to describe a pub that serves very good food. (The line between a pub that serves great food and a restaurant that serves good beers is blurry. Suffice to say, you know a gastropub when you’re in one.)
And in an unlikely turn of events, the gastropub phenomenon is sweeping Southern California. In a region that has long had easy access to good fresh food at reasonable prices, the adoption of a British food trend might seem as likely as a rash of orthodontists proudly offering “English-style” teeth, but arrive it certainly has. Los Angeles’ first gastropub was arguably The Bowery, a tiny box that opened on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood in 2005. Dressed as an unpretentious New York–style pub, The Bowery boasts good steak frites, a really good burger and enough hipsters mixed with locals to confer an air of insouciant sophistication.
The Village Idiot on Melrose was next, with a menu even more gastro (i.e. sophisticated) than that of The Bowery. I told the owner that it reminded me of The Eagle, and his response was that he’d lived in London during the late ’90s — it was indeed his inspiration. Great beers on tap, a friendly welcome from the staff and a buzzing pub-like atmosphere combined with excellent food mean that this place is nearly always hopping. The crowd, a mix of couples, singles, straight, gay, old and young really does remind me of London. Thankfully, unlike ’90s-era London, there isn’t the fog of cigarette smoke through which your server appears like a U-boat in a war movie.
And now, Pasadena has its very own gastropub — Brix 42 on DeLacey Avenue. When I popped in, the air was as thick as a “pea-souper” (London’s sobriquet for smog) with the flames of the recent Station fire clearly visible from Colorado Boulevard. But all was cool and comfy inside. The first thing you notice about Brix 42 is its sheer size. Housed in a former gym, it’s a cavernous brick-walled space, with high ceilings and enough exposed ductwork to make it feel loft-like and raw.
Dominating the place is a vast oval bar that serves as a divider between three distinct areas: On the right as you enter, there’s a spacious lounge with ottomans and other seating and an open feel that hints at a dance floor; indeed, there’s a DJ from Thursday through Saturday until 1.30 a.m., and apparently, the joint gets jumping. It was quiet when I visited, as it was very early, but I’m told they can and often do accommodate as many as 150 revelers. Across the other side of the bar, a wall of large raised booths attracts a crowd who order food and watch sports on the big screens above the bar. Toward the rear of Brix 42, there’s a large room with rows of back-to-back booths, high wooden dividers allowing for some privacy at the tables.
The heart of Brix, though, and what sets it apart from its competition, is its brewhouse, encased in glass in the center of the room, its shiny steel tanks visible to all. Brewmaster Roberto de Santos has been at his craft for more than 15 years, and here he nurtures the creation of four brews, soon to be five. There’s a pilsner, a Hefeweisen, an IPA and an amber ale. Andrew Pratt, the general manager, told me that they’re working on making a dark stout next.
I settled into one of the raised booths and ordered a flight of beers and a couple of bites. First off, I have to say I’m a wine drinker and don’t profess to be a “hophead,” as die-hard beer fans are known, but the brews were leagues ahead of what I’ve had from any bottle in recent years. I overheard a young woman dining with her boyfriend and parents at a neighboring table say, “I don’t like Hefeweisens usually, but this is lovely!” I don’t like Hef either, but she was right: It was lovely.
To help the beers along, I got a beet salad to start — beets, beet jelly, blue cheese, greens and cucumbers. The carmine jelly was a nice sweet touch, and I made short work of it, before diving into a really good pot roast. I was told it was their most ordered dish, and that should be no surprise: The meat was ridiculously tender and arrived with rich gravy and thick garlic mashed potatoes to soak up the juice. It might have been 100 degrees outside, but, in my heart, a cool rain was lashing against a cottage wall, while a log crackled in a nearby fireplace. Where was I?
One of the things I consider an essential element of the gastropub equation is value for money. After all, we’re talking about a pub with food here. And in these trying times, it’s quite easy to see who’s offering value. Just do a head count. While the owners of pricey establishments are nervously drumming their fingers and staring at the door, any place offering good food and drink at a fair price is doing a brisk trade. It’s not that people don’t want to go out for a good time. They just don’t want to feel ill while paying for it. Brix offers happy hour prices from 4 to 7 p.m. every day (except Monday, when they close). On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, they go on until 11 p.m.
As I left, the bar was starting to fill up nicely. Pratt said they have a big post-work crowd, office people keen to unwind, share some food and watch a game after a long day, often staying until closing. That reminded me very much of London life, and yet, this is most definitely an American bar. It’s the straight white teeth that give it away.
42 S. DeLacey Ave., Pasadena |(626) 405-9114| brix42.com
Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday, 4 to 11 p.m.;
Thursday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.;
Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.
6268 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood |(323) 465-3400 | theboweryhollywood.com
Hours: Monday through Sunday, noon to 2 a.m.
The Village Idiot
7383 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles |(323) 655-3331| villageidiotla.com
Hours: Monday through Thursday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight;Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.;
Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.