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FEB/MAR 2005 | REGIONAL | WEST COAST

LA Update : Back To The Beginning
By Don Erickson

When one looks back on the microbrewing industry’s first days, it’s natural to focus on the breweries that made the beer. However, it's just as important to remember the bars and restaurants that were first to sell those beers all those years ago. Some of those places, such as San Gabriel’s Stuffed Sandwich, have changed very little (even after relocating down the street). Others, like the fabled Lyons Brewery Depot, are long gone. Most have survived but have changed considerably over the years. The latest to undergo such a metamorphosis is Spike’s Place, the classic beer joint in the California Central Coast town of San Luis Obispo.

When it opened in 1981, Spike’s offered a wide array of beers most of us had never seen before. There were all kinds of strange European beers and equally exotic brews from tiny breweries in Northern California. To entice us to sample the likes of Old Peculier, Spike’s created something called an “Around the World” card. If you drank all of the beers listed on the card, you received a T-shirt and got your name on a plaque on the wall. Complete more cards and you got your very own Spike’s mug.

We took to the idea with enthusiasm. Spike’s walls were soon full of plaques honoring those who’d successfully toured “the provocative world of brew.” However, even as the walls were being covered in plaques and the rafters were filling with mugs, Spike’s once-stellar lineup of exotic beers was becoming decidedly ordinary. Eventually, it became just another beer bar.

Enter Seth Meagher and Chantelle Noelle, two young restaurateurs who bought Spike’s late last year. They bought it with the intention of transforming it into a European-style beer café. However, when they learned of Spike’s beer-soaked history, the two quickly realized that returning Spike’s to its roots would dovetail nicely with their original vision.
Their first action was to thoroughly remake the place. Furniture and fittings were replaced, 20 years of clutter was removed, and the walls were de-plaqued (some 27,000 were removed), patched and repainted.

The result was startling. In fact, longtime regulars feel like they’ve walked into a time warp. Without all those plaques, mugs and whatnot, Spike’s now looks amazingly like it did when it first opened. (By the way, Spike’s didn’t trash all those mugs. All 15,000 of them were carefully stored away where they’re waiting for their owners to come rescue them.) More substantial changes are still to come. A new draught system will replace the kluge that evolved from a handful of taps to more than 20. In all, Spike’s will soon offer some 36 draught beers. The bar itself, having earned honorable retirement, will be replaced, and the entry will be reworked. Meanwhile, the menu is being overhauled. Old favorites will remain, but there’s new stuff too: soups, stews and salads.

But Spike’s has always been about the beer. Yes, the “Around the World” cards will continue, albeit in a new format. More important, the beer lineup will expand from 40+ to 70 or even 80 beers. Old favorites, like Old Peculier, are already back — and in their traditional slots on the card — while new offerings, such as the unfiltered version of Firestone Walker’s Double Barrel Ale (previously available only at the brewery), will have their own places of honor.

And, in accordance with the best European beer-drinking tradition, almost every beer will be served in its own specific glass. If you order a beer and none of its glasses are available, either change your order or wait for the dishwasher to catch up. The capstone is the beer menu itself. For a very long time, that menu was central to the Spike’s beer-drinking experience. The menu didn’t just list the beers; it actually explained them in detail. That menu quite often made someone’s first encounter with, say, a lambic a positive experience — “Whoa, that’s different, but good,” instead of “Eww, what the …?!”
Sadly, over time, that menu became just a list. But Seth and Chantelle have brought it back. They even enlisted its original author, locally revered beer guru Chuck Hiigel, to revise, refresh and update it.

The result? You know that feeling that all is once again right with the world? That’s the aura at Spike’s these days. I hope it continues. To visit the reworked Spike’s, exit the 101 freeway at Marsh Street, turn left at the second stoplight and left again at the next stoplight. Spike’s will be on the right.

Elsewhere, the Firestone Walker Brewing Company has one brewery but two tasting rooms. The Paso Robles location has the brewery, but the Buellton location now features a high-end restaurant. Open at 5:00 p.m. every day, the Buellton location offers a menu that ranges from “First Plates,” like a spinach and pancetta salad, to entrees such as “Rocky” chicken. There are also nightly specials, including roasted pig, a local specialty, every Wednesday. There’s also a separate menu if you prefer to stay in the tasting room.

Firestone Walker’s Buellton facility is smack in the middle of Santa Barbara wine country. Not surprisingly, the restaurant offers a very good wine list in addition to FW’s own fine beers. Hmm, dinner at Firestone Walker-Buellton would be a good finish to a "Sideways"-style beer and wine safari. To get there, exit the 101 freeway at Avenue of the Flags, then turn inland. Turn left at the T-intersection and look to the right. By the way, if you are doing the "Sideways" tour, there’s a Marriott Hotel right down the street. Even more hotels are a little farther away.

In the greater L.A. area, expect most of 2005’s news to come from the Inland Empire. For starters, Rancho Cucamonga has a brewpub again. Called Omaha Jack’s, it is a resurrection of the failed Compass Creek enterprise. OJ’s beers are served unfiltered, a detail that has provoked some interesting reactions: several patrons insisted that meant the brewer was lazy!

Soon, Rancho Cucamonga will be home to a BJ’s restaurant. Another BJ’s just opened in San Bernardino, and two more are coming to Moreno Valley and Corona. I don’t know if any of the new BJ’s will include a brewery; however, I hear two brewpubs are fermenting in or about Redlands.

In conclusion, I’m writing this on the last day of 2004. Looking back, it was a year where, thanks to the “real” job, I spent most of my time everywhere but in Southern California: Orlando, Dallas, Tucson, Detroit, Chicago, etc. One of my usual travel companions doesn’t like beer. He likes Olive Garden. Since he usually had the keys to the rental car, we went to Olive Garden. However, I did get to sample some of the local beer scenes. In upstate New York, I came across some of the most god-awful brew I’ve had in a long, long time.

On the other hand, I found a deli in Orlando that offered all of the Shipyard and Dogfish Head beers. And in Detroit, at a local landmark restaurant, I met a very good bartender who directed me to all of the good beer joints in town. In general, I discovered there’s good beer just about everywhere these days. If anything, East Coast brewers seem to be more beholden to style guidelines and European brewing traditions than we hop-mad Californians are. Such diversity is good. Don’t take it for granted. Explore and enjoy.

Spike’s Place
570 Higuera St.
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
(805) 544-7157

Firestone Walker Brewing Co.
620 McMurray Rd.
Buellton, CA 93427
(805) 686-1557

Omaha Jack’s Steak House
11837 Foothill Blvd.
Rancho Cucamonga, CA 91730
(909) 477-4377

Don Erickson is an associate editor of the Celebrator Beer News and a longtime “grognard” covering the Southern California beer scene. He lives in Long Beach, Calif.

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