By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
With locations in Studio City and Hermosa Beach, and a third coming to Dallas, Laurel Tavern has asserted itself as a burgeoning chain … and yet, even if you’ve dined at the original North Hollywood restaurant, you haven’t yet truly discovered the full range of delights Laurel Tavern has to offer.
That’s because this Laurel Tavern, located near the mouth of Hermosa’s lively pier, is very much an anomaly in this over-the-top seaside scene.
“We don’t serve Fireball or Patrón here,” General Manager Lee Farrell said.
Translation: Please don’t confuse us with those other Hermosa bars.
Since the gastropub opened in December 2016, Farrell has worked hard to make this place a destination competitive with LA’s best bars, explaining that he is consciously trying to transplant the philosophy of such revered restaurants to his place of work.
On the low-key Wednesday evening we entered, we were greeted by The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” on the speakers overhead. Fair enough, that was a huge international hit circa 1983. However, later that evening, “Lost in the Supermarket,” a deep cut from “London Calling,” played overhead, followed by Talking Heads. This is not the aging Notorious B.I.G. hits or the overplayed “Back in Black” cuts you’d expect to hear down the pier. There’s a different energy here.
The menu is different, too. What gives Laurel Tavern a culinary edge over the original location is a woodfire oven allowing for tastier meat and such welcome menu additions as Wood Grilled Artichoke, an appetizer with a housemade remoulade dipping sauce that’s worth all the work because of the smoky flavor complementing these meaty petals.
That whole artichoke aside, starters range from Bacon Brussels Sprouts with roasted grape, hazelnut and Parmesan, to the obligatory Fish Tacos (this is still Hermosa, after all … ), which tastes nice and light, and Smoked Louisiana Wings with celery and a side of buttermilk ranch dressing.
We opened with lighter fare: a Mediterranean-styled Mezze Board with toasty pita bread (definitely benefiting from that woodfire oven) to push the quinoa tabbouleh, red beet hummus, baba ghanoush, piquillo pepper and small rectangle of French feta. Colorful and plentiful, all of these ingredients tasted sharp and fresh, with portions generous enough that it took two of us to finish off this savory board.
Also recommended: Pork Belly Skewers, six maple-glazed morsels with lime and cilantro guaranteed to disappear fast.
There are three gourmet hamburgers to consider, from the no-frills Tavern Burger, topped with honey mustard, avocado, lettuce and pickled red onion, to a Jalapeño Burger, loaded with chipotle sauce, poblano, pepper jack cheese and an onion ring.
We “steered” down the middle (pun intended) with our Hickory Burger, a right-on, satisfying hunk of juicy house-ground beef topped with thick, gooey cheddar, bacon-and-onion compote and lettuce. Paired with Garlic Parmesan Fries, this patty excels.
Non-burger meat-lovers can delve into Crispy Chicken, a roast beef-based French Dip sandwich or Duck Club, with smoked bacon, pickled green tomato and cherry mustard.
A duck meat fixation, from Duck Nachos to confit, certainly takes this restaurant’s fare up a notch on its limited yet well-placed menu. (Note: there is no dessert served here.)
At $18, the priciest dish here, Steak and Fries offers a stellar grand slab of flat-iron steak (which we ordered medium rare) over which housemade herb butter is melted to tremendous effect. The potatoes are more like sturdy frites than your greasy Americanized French fries.
Anyone looking for a deep-dive excursion into more refined alcoholic pleasures can only look to the agreeable Farrell, very knowledgeable when it comes to high-end spirits. The house’s Spicy Pineapple Margarita and the even more pineapple-y Dr’s Orders, a green juice-based mix of Tito’s vodka, coconut water and pineapple, are solid, but for a supreme order, try The Good Looking Stranger, a Casamigos Reposado Tequila and High West Campfire whiskey cocktail with orange bitters, agave and (yes) fire, which will remind you of the best Old Fashioned you’ve ever had.
Not to be upstaged, Farrell also produced what they call The Best Old Fashioned, the hardcore bourbon standard served here with Amaro, Benedictine and cherry bitters—smooth and formidable. Then he took down a very special bottle from a top shelf: WhistlePig straight rye whiskey’s Black Prince label. Only 36 bottles of this expensive, Vermont-made rare edition have been shipped to California restaurants and Hermosa’s Laurel Tavern has one of them.
Ultimately, this location is not merely a sweet departure from Laurel Tavern’s brand or Hermosa Beach but from Southern California itself. Come here only if you feel like being transported.