CURIOUS CITY — So there was this poor English kid from Bristol whose mother was locked away in an institution in 1913 by his father, for the depression she suffered after her other child died, but 9-year-old Archibald was told that his mother was dead. A year later his father remarried and started a new family, but it didn’t include little Archie.
No one knows who cared for him but by 14 he had been expelled from school, so he packed up for London, where he learned juggling and stilt walking and other exotic skills and was hired by a troupe that performed in music halls and later got an offer to tour the States. Archie decided, at 16, that was where his fortunes lay, left the troupe in New York and got into Broadway musicals, then Hollywood movies, and worked on losing the Cockney accent he had picked up in London. He was only partially successful but wound up with a clipped hybrid that American audiences loved, by the time the studios changed his name to Cary Grant.
Phil McGovern, Cockney proprietor of the Daily Pint on Pico Boulevard since 1987, would be the last one to tell you he’d be mistaken for Cary Grant. (Phil’s work uniform does not include tailored suits.) But he could understand why an actor back then would want to lose that workingman’s accent. Cockney got a bad rep starting 600 years ago with a snob named Chaucer. By 1909 the London City Council declared “the Cockney mode of speech, with its unpleasant twang, is a modern corruption without legitimate credentials, and is unworthy of being the speech of any person in the capital city of the Empire.” Well!
Most Americans are unaware some British still practice discrete class discrimination; lacking the “proper” family, schooling and social standing is usually betrayed by your dialect, and will hold you back. By the time McGovern was 16 he left school (not expelled) and at that same tender age likewise realized his fortunes lay west, in sunny California. “I thought I’d get a better shake in America,” is the way he put it.
Upon arriving in L.A. at 17 he made two quick, smart decisions: live in Santa Monica, seek your fortune in Beverly Hills. By 21 he was learning haircutting in the Beverly Hills salon of Dusty Fleming, and within a few years was able to open his own salon, cleverly named British Hairways.
His home in Santa Monica was just across the street from a shabby biker bar named the Orbit. “I used to come in late at night, after work, have a quick beer,” said McGovern, “then one night the guy said, ‘Hey, want to buy this place?’ I thought, that’d be something I’d like to get into. Back in London as a kid I was around the pub scene, so it was like a duck to water.” He said there was no craft beer scene then, just Sierra Nevada (“still one of my top sellers”), Firestone and Red Hook, and he started bringing in some good European brews.
Now the Daily Pint, named for a line in “Band on the Run,” boasts 33 beers on tap, three on cask and more than 100 bottled beers, rotated daily, all listed on a wall-covering chalkboard you can’t believe when you first see it, divided by type, with alcoholic percentages noted. McGovern says staying ahead of the craft beer boom is what made his business, and accounts for the majority of it.
They have special tastings of small casks occasionally, and I discovered the best beer in the world there a year ago: Goose Islands’ Bourbon County Stout. I did a sampling of small glasses of each variety a few nights ago, and my faith in humanity was renewed. It’s dense, black, a bit sweet, almost soft and chewy, aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels, you sip it and it puts nearly everything else called beer to shame. They have it only once or twice a year, and it’s gone by the next day.
But as much as I love my Bourbon County Stout, I’m a whiskey and Scotch man, and that means the Daily Pint is my portal to paradise. More than 1,000 whiskeys, more than 300 different single malt Scotches. Matched by very few establishments in the world. The Balvenie is my favorite Scotch, and McGovern claims to have 15-18 different varieties. The rarest is the yearly release of The Balvenie Tun. $90 a shot.
But you have more expensive shots, right Phil? “Yeah, we do.”
Most expensive? “We’ve got a 1946 Scotch that’s $1,600 a shot.” When was the last time you sold one of those? “Yeah… we haven’t yet, haven’t opened that one yet.” Patience pays profits. He has bottles he’s held 10 or 20 years. “Of course, many are now priced five times what I paid for them.” Better than real estate.
Do groups run up four figure tabs here? “Oh, not groups, individuals. Often.”
Celebrities? “All the time, but you expect that because it’s Santa Monica. They come because it’s under the radar here. We don’t make a fuss and it allows them to fly.”
Well? Give me a story. “I don’t like to drop names, but Quentin Tarantino wrote ‘Kill Bill’ right here where we’re sitting.” What?! You never told me that! “I just did.”
What next? “Saturday, January 24th is our 6th Annual Robbie Burns Night. We urge the public of Santa Monica and surrounding areas to wear their best kilts. Yes, I will be wearing mine, McGovern is a Scottish name, you know. All Burns fans are encouraged to recite ‘Ode to a Haggis,’ his best-known work besides ‘Auld Lang Syne.'” With enough shots of my favorite whiskey, Writers Tears, I’ll faithfully recite and produce the tears.
Here’s a final insight on the low-key proprietor. On the web site they list six employees. “Alicia’s here just three, four years,” he said, “and Llan, almost from the beginning, 25 years.” Do your people stay here a long time?
“Uh, I haven’t had anybody quit yet.” Really. In 27 years. Had to fire anyone? “Nope.”
That’s remarkable – you must be nicer than you try to let on, I teased, and he chuckled.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Be nice to your kids. They’ll choose your nursing home.”
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for almost 30 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at email@example.com.