Until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard…
Father’s Office (FO) is a historic beer bar and restaurant in Santa Monica, CA (Culver City). Dating from 1953, it was re-made as a beer-aware destination in 1985 and prefigures the craft beer bar found in almost every city or sizeable town today.
Earlier, I profiled the historic beer menu of another Los Angeles beer bar, Barney’s Beanery, see here.
The approach to beer of Barney’s was fundamentally different to FO. Barney’s Beanery continued an older tradition of offering a wide selection of international beers, mostly bottled. Famous names from Britain and Germany predominated.
In time, this type of bar embraced American craft beer culture, too. It took time, in other words, to develop confidence in America’s native brewing scene.
But FO appears not to have been an imported beer destination before 1985. This 2007 LA Times article, by Todd Martens, explains that FO was an early craft beer bar, so it came to the role directly so to speak.
From 1985 its beer list offered no Budweiser or other mass-produced American beer, and no imports. In the early years, some customers made the inevitable protests. The bar countered by providing an education function for artisan beer. For further details see this account of its phoenix years.
This quality beer focus was particularly important as L.A. had resisted for many years the craft brewery trend that was embraced in northern California, the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, and East Coast. Why was this?
In his 1991 Pocket Beer Guide (3rd ed.) Michael Jackson speculated that the extra-warm climate of southern California discouraged interest in big-bodied beers. He felt as well that the transient nature of L.A. life kept its attention span short for such off-piste interests.
Todd Martens also noted that Eureka, a splashy L.A. brewpub project from the chef-entrepreneur Wolfgang Puck, failed in 1990. He said this example discouraged craft brewing in the area for many years. Greg Stone of now world-famous Stone Brewing in Escondido, CA, interviewed for that story, agreed with this theory.
FO filled the gap by offering a good selection of California and West Coast microbrewery beers. In the earliest years its approach had a classic simplicity, as one sees from its c.1988 beer list above.
Jackson stated in the 1991 Pocket Guide that by the early 1990s California had between 65 and 70 craft breweries and brewpubs. The country as a whole had about 200. The craft beer scene was still very small, and almost nil in Southern California.
Yet, FO offered a quality regional selection, showing a connoisseurship not beholden to the (often misleading) glitter of an imported name. Almost all the beers are top-fermented even though California had a number of craft lager breweriesby then. This reflected the bias of craft brewing (anywhere) toward top-fermentation in its first decades.
Hence FO offering an assortment of ales, porter/stout including Imperial Stout, and wheat beers. A range was featured from the iconic Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, a brewery that provided a more authentic link to America’s brewing past than, say, Anheuser-Busch.
I visited FO a few times in the 1990s. By then the beer selection had broadened but it always retained an artisan focus. I recall a wheat beer flavoured with desert white sage that was particularly good. While the 1988 list looks conservative today, it was revolutionary for the time.
FO today comprises two locations, with a third planned. It is known under its current ownership for innovative food as well as great beer – currently 36 draft beers are offered. Physically, the original location on Montana Blvd. looks pretty much as it always did, perhaps a little sleeker: this L.A. visitor page offers a tour d’horizon.
FO was a true tastemaker and path-blazer, setting the tone for places like Toronado in San Francisco, C’est What in Toronto, Horse Brass in Portland*, Arendsnest in Amsterdam, and countless other beer pubs that focused on locality, small-scale, and terroir.
Footnote re Grapevine Brewery: Grapevine Brewery, mentioned in Jackson’s 1991 Pocket Guide, was an early, rare southern California brewpub. It appears to have started in 1987. By 1990 it had changed ownership, and the name became Okie Girl Eatery. A quake did it in by 1994, see details in this 1994 news account.
The Grapevine bar was located in Lebec, CA, about 80 miles northwest of L.A. Lebec and the adjacent Grapevine are localities in which dramatic canyons dominate with their stark, dun-coloured beauty. In a time when very little craft beer was made in southern California FO made sure to get some from the fledgling operation.
The fact that FO advertised the Grapevine’s light stout and two other beers served at room temperature tells you something about the commitment of the real beer people. They have always existed, in all kinds of places, often under adverse conditions.
But confidence, and commitment again, they did not lack. To call Sierra Nevara Pale Ale the “traditional” pale ale of the Sierra Nevada foothills a bare seven or eight years after the brewery started takes a certain chutzpa, cheek for the U.K. readers. Except that they were right, or time proved it so anyway.
The true beer people exist of course today no less. Except now they get lots of publicity and kudos. In fact it’s something taken for granted especially by those half my age. Above is some of the wellsprings.
Postscript: most of the breweries on the historic FO menu, and most of the beers, continue to this day. Of course ownership has changed in many cases. But the beers amounted to templates that still appeal and of course launched a thousand ships, or the waters they sail on…
Note re images: the first image, the interior of Father’s Office as it is today, was sourced from Pinterest, here. The next two were sourced from the historic menu collection of Los Angeles Public Library. The fourth was sourced from this free campsite webpage, and the last from the producer’s website. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*The Horse Brass in Portland, OR and its guiding spirit Don Younger are closely connected as well to the early craft beer ethos. But Horse Brass started in 1976 and for years specialized in domestic and fine imported beer. It sold craft beer early but did not AFAIK reinvent itself as solely devoted the budding craft brewery scene.