MAIN STREET — Taking over a celebrated eatery still in good standing is a great way for a restaurateur to avoid the many stumbling blocks that doom new establishments.
They already have a legion of loyal customers to provide a steady stream of income and most likely a chef who knows their way around the kitchen. With a little luck they can continue the success.
But there are also some drawbacks. Take a favorite dish off the menu and you may get blowback. Hire a new chef and you could see your clientele bolt.
Recently, two Main Street staples were taken over by new ownership — The Library Ale House and Rick’s Tavern. While the former’s transition has been almost invisible, the latter’s has been more dramatic, with the new owner going so far as to no longer claim allegiance to New York sports teams. Is he a genius, or a glutton for punishment?
The Library Ale House is one of Santa Monica’s, if not the Westside’s, best craft beer bars, hosting a wide selection of quality kegs long before the craft beer movement took hold roughly three years ago. It’s a great place to sample aged ales or traditional triples with high alcohol contents. The food, while not gourmet, has always been palatable.
Well, the amazing beer selection is still the same, but the cuisine has been elevated thanks to partner/chef Tom Hugenberger. He took his time (about a year) before introducing new dishes, and those I had the pleasure of sampling earlier this month were delicious and flavorful, featuring fresh ingredients of the season and a pleasing presentation.
There were a series of new salads, my favorite being the steak salad with tomato, shaved Parmesan, beets and shiitake mushrooms with a sherry mustard vinaigrette. He also brought out the best of the afternoon, a roasted pumpkin curry with cauliflower and jasmine rice. It was some of the best curry I’ve had in the area. If you have a craving for some grilled cheese, try the gourmet version with brie, gruyere, green apples, arugula and pesto and some toasted sourdough.
“It’s not about being fancy, just tasty,” Hugenberger said.
Easier said than done.
Hugenberger’s love of cooking started at the age of 9, at the same time he arrived in Los Angeles from Seoul, South Korea. Cooking Sunday breakfast for his father gave him satisfaction, and the high-energy TV show “Mel’s Diner” was an inspiration. Wanting to be a part of the fun, Hugenberger made a playful comment to his dad about one day owning a diner. Fast-forward 20 years when he became the owner of S&W Diner in Culver City.
Following the success of S&W, Hugenberger partnered up with his best friend, Derek Chang, to make popular hits out of The Hungry Bear and Lulu’s Caf√©.
He prepared for his career at the California Culinary Academy, where he mastered the French technique. He later became a popular chef instructor at The Art Institute of Los Angeles in Santa Monica.
Hugenberger’s early experience ranged from preparing fast-service food to studio catering. He also had a stint in the kitchen at the elite Melisse Restaurant.
His skills and love of cooking have elevated the food at the Library Ale House to several steps above your average pub grub, but the prices are still relatively reasonable (like $10 to $14 for a nice entree and they still have those chips and salsa).
Finally the food is on the same level as the amazing craft beer. I highly recommend stopping by if you haven’t been for some time. (Order the Frickles — fried pickles — to snack on while watching a ball game.) Things have definitely changed for the better at the Library Ale House.
The same can be said of Rick’s Tavern, but the journey to get there varies greatly from Hugenberger’s. Instead of trying to stay under the radar, owner Howard Alpert, who also runs Main Street’s Circle Bar, has made some significant changes, including sprucing up the inside to make it more refined and less divey.
That means a new paint job, better fixtures, chairs and booths, art work instead of memorabilia and kitsch, and some flat-screen TVs. There’s also a new classically trained chef in the kitchen who has designed a menu void of most of the fried, fattening foods of yesteryear. There’s still traditional bar grub like chicken wings and sausages, but there’s also a fresh kale salad and Peruvian ceviche.
“Because I grew up in the meat business I wanted to make sure that the food is good,” said Alpert, a real estate agent by trade who specializes in restaurants. Alpert hired a food consultant and mixologist to help with the menu.
“I want this to be a neighborhood place,” he added. “We still have burgers, but with high-quality meat.”
The kitchen stays open as late as the bar so folks looking to satisfy late-night cravings can hit Rick’s without worry of missing out on their signature burger, which features pulled pork and bacon on a soft, warm pretzel bun. The chef, Chris Morrison, uses a mixture of three different cuts to make his patty and the result is a decadent burger sure to please the hardiest eaters.
“Everything we do here is focused on making sure the food is local,” Chris said. “If I put it on the plate I want to see where it comes from.”
A major change that may turn off some loyalists of Rick’s is the move from a New York-centric bar to one that welcomes fans of all major sports teams. That could prove to be a risky decision on Alpert’s part, but he wanted to be more inclusive, particularly since Los Angeles doesn’t have a professional football team.
“We took away that identity of New York,” he said as he dove into a kale salad with chili flakes, mashed avocado, Parmesan and panko with rosemary and thyme-infused olive oil. “We want to be welcoming to everyone. We are the local watering hole.”
No longer just a hole in the wall, Rick’s feels a tad more sophisticated than before, but yet still a home away from home, a friendly bar with improved food options and a more refined drink menu that serves the neighborhood better than ever — that is if you aren’t a New York transplant. Seriously though, don’t we have enough of them here already?
If you go
Library Ale House
2911 Main St.
Santa Monica, Calif.
Rick’s Tavern on Main
2907 Main St.
Santa Monica, Calif.