The fish and chips at Sonny McLean’s Irish Pub are top notch thanks to the freshness of the fish and the use of Anchor Steam beer in the batter. (Photo by Michael Ryan.)

The British are coming! Actually they’ve been in Santa Monica for quite awhile, along with the Irish, Scotts, Aussies and Kiwis. To no one’s surprise they have opened a handful of pubs within the city limits. Offering the homesick a refuge from the beautiful weather with authentic pints, early morning Premier League football and a dark watering hole that makes the weary feel at ease. While British and Irish pubs have become staples of Santa Monica, the staple of any self-respecting pub is a good plate of fish and chips.
Which spot has the best fish and chips is up for debate. However, after devouring this signature dish at every single pub, as well as a couple of notable seafood restaurants here in town, there are some golden merits and deep-fried pitfalls to report on.
Willy O’Sullivan of O’Brien’s on Wilshire Boulevard told me that the reason the British and Irish working class started batter-frying their fish in the first place was to make a little fillet go a long way. It also offered a welcomed break from the norm. The end result is that people love to deep fry their food. For many fish and chips, the secret is in the batter.
The carbon dioxide in beer brings out a lighter texture to the fish’s batter. But the beer in the batter did change from place to place. British pubs like Ye Olde King’s Head and Cock ‘n Bull used Guinness stout in the batter. Irish pubs like Finn McCool’s went with a Harp lager,  while O’Brien’s (Wilshire) went with Bass ale. Sonny McLean’s opted for San Francisco’s Anchor Steam. Places like McCabe’s used no beer at all. The biggest surprise was O’Brien’s (Main Street), which added Bud Light. And while Bud Light can barely be considered beer, it did render a crisp, golden crust. Overall, the lagers and Anchor Steam produced a lighter batter both in color and texture. The stouts lent themselves to a darker, heavier coating.
On the other side of the batter is the fish, and the one thing that every place had in common was their fish of choice — cod. Cheers to Sonny McLean’s and Santa Monica Seafood for sourcing their fish from sustainable fisheries. Jeers to Britannia for apparently buying cut-rate fish at The Restaurant Depot (I have my sources). For the rest of the field, Iceland cod was pretty much the norm. Fresh or frozen, it can be tough to discern. Chances are if the fish served resembles a deep-fried brick, it was sitting in the freezer not too long ago. If the fish is fresh, it should almost melt in your mouth.
As for the chips, the thicker steak fry variety is the traditional accompaniment found at King’s Head, Sonny’s, O’Brien’s (Main) and Finn McCool’s. However the thin variety, especially the ones at Blue Plate Oysterette, which were fried and seasoned to perfection, were some of the best. All other chips pretty much followed suit. Although Cock ‘n Bull’s chips were quite bland, McCabe’s added a generous and therefor superfluous amount of parsley, and Brittania (which can’t catch a break) had fries that were unpleasantly soggy.
Standard accouterments to traditional fish and chips are salt, vinegar, tartar sauce, lemon, sometimes peas, and ketchup or HP Sauce for the chips. Whatever floats your boat. Coleslaw found itself on the plate at O’Brien’s (Main and Wilshire) and Britannia. Sonny McLean’s serves peas, which mercifully added color and something not deep fried into the mix. Their tartar sauce is thinner and has fresh dill, which is a nice alternative to the standard mayonnaise-like tartar.
The best side of all though is a pint of Guinness. Every pub did understand how to pour a proper pint of Guinness. For some peculiar reason it did taste best at Ye Old King’s Head, maybe because it helped me forget how overpriced my meal was. (They sure like to stick it to the tourists.) On more than one occasion a pint of the dark stuff was the meal’s saving grace.
Some intangibles go with the territory when dining out. McCabe’s fish and chips stated they are served with peas and lemon slices, but none came with the order. Blue Plate Oysterette did not state that their fish had bones in them, but accidentally (I hope) a few too many bones were left in the fish. Finn McCool’s fish and chips were great, but they were buried under a mound of fries trapping in steam and creating a chamber of soggyness. They were pulled from the rubble before it was too late, but certain factors like this cannot be planned for.
The winners: O’Brien’s (Main), and all of Wilshire Boulevard. Who knew a Bud Light-battered $7.99 fish and chips lunch special at O’Brien’s (Main) would not only be so good, but bountiful as well? And Wilshire Boulevard being home to Sonny McLean’s, the other O’Brien’s, and Santa Monica Seafood all did fish and chips right as well. Santa Monica Seafood’s offering is fresh and sustainable, but perhaps a little bit pricey at $15 — you certainly get what you pay for. O’Brien’s (Wilshire) is a friendly neighborhood spot with an outstanding plate of fish and chips to boot. Never mind the coleslaw and it is near perfect. Sonny McLean’s takes home top honors though. Anchor Steam battered Canadian ling cod  melts in your mouth. Seasoned steak fries, a house-made tartar sauce, and the only place that served up peas makes Sonny’s not only the best in Mid-City, but all of Santa Monica as well.
The losers: Besides my cholesterol count, the loser here, hands down, is Britannia. Cut-rate, over-cooked fish mixed in with soggy undercooked fries is a losing hand. Not only was it bad, but the portions resembled something from the kid’s meal. Granted, I did order the lunch special, but I expected something much more. I’d rather risk choking on the bones from the fish and chips at Blue Plate Oysterette instead of eating the deep-fried beer coasters they’re serving over at Britannia.
What a whirlwind! Biking was the means of transportation, which may have knocked off a couple thousand calories to the 50 grand accumulated during this excursion. Just adding an extra layer of fat as Santa Monica temperatures will plummet into the 60s come wintertime. There are some gems as well as some duds, but overall the fish and chip scene is pretty good here in Santa Monica. Way better than Culver City.

MICHAEL can be seen riding around town on his bike burning calories so he can eat more food, or on CityTV hosting his own show, “Tour de Feast.” To reach him visit his website at http://tourdefeast.blogspot.com/ or follow him on Twitter @greaseweek