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Bergin’s Endures

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Bergin’s has been around since 1936, when it opened on Wilshire Boulevard as the Horseshoe Tavern and Kennel Club, and it’s been at its current location on Fairfax Avenue for 50 years. Like a traditional Irish pub, it’s a sort of community living room. I’ve lost track of how many people have told me they “lived” at Bergin’s for some more or less lengthy (and hazy) part of their lives.

A year ago a restaurateur announced he was going to take the place over and convert it into an English-style chop house, but almost as soon as Bergin’s’ regulars started dealing with the shock, the matter resolved itself. One of the old partners split, the remaining partner got a lease and the restaurateur was squeezed out.

So has Bergin’s changed after all this? It was remodeled in December, but it’s hard to see what’s new except for the handsome tiles in the bathrooms. The place seems to look as it always has: worn brick floor, walls the color of crude oil, cardboard shamrocks with the names of regular customers on the walls (but no longer on all the ceilings). If you want to tell who’s been a regular longer, look for the shamrocks that have a brownish patina--they date from when smoking was legal in restaurants.

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Menu Highlights Include Shrimp Cocktail, Burgers

Certainly the menu looks different. For one thing, the current menu is designated the summer menu. That’s a chuckle; seasonal cooking was never what you’d call part of the old Bergin’s.

There may be more emphasis on salads, but this is still basically a pub menu. It offers a terrific shrimp cocktail: huge prawns in a goblet of cocktail sauce with a decided wallop of horseradish.

And you can get chicken wings, of course--not terribly spicy, but the waiter will obligingly bring you ranch and blue cheese dressing, maybe even some of the tartar sauce-like mustard-dill dressing as well. In a bold move, Bergin’s lists a fish cake, rather than the ubiquitous crab cake. It’s a little dry and chewy, but it’s a change.

Some menu items are signaled as special attractions these days, and I’d go along halfway on the tomato salad; the thick blue cheese balsamic dressing is good, but the beefsteak tomatoes aren’t always as ripe as they should be. The most obvious novelty among the appetizers is the French fries, which are the usual semi-skinny size these days, rather than steak fries.

Bergin’s serves a particularly good thick hamburger on a homely potato bun, and on Tuesdays you get special burger sauces, like chipotle catsup. The best part: fresh crinkle-cut potato chips.

A decent New York steak has always been the big entree here, and there’s also an open-face steak sandwich (Jake’s steak), though it’s nowhere near as tender as the New York steak. The bottled steak sauce you get is Houses of Parliament, a wilder cousin of A-1 with a citrus component.

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The other classic entree is Gaelic beef, a beloved beef stew made with Guinness stout, potatoes, carrots and prunes, with a couple of pickled onions thrown in at the end. One of the new items is called chicken Erin, a restaurantish name that doesn’t inspire confidence. The chicken breast is oddly tough, and the sauce is excessively rich, which may be hard on your stomach if you plan to have a few drinks. It’s cream, bacon and mushrooms.

Want a Shamrock? Start With Irish Coffee

You can get pork chops, which tend to cook up dry, as usual; nice spiced apples to go with them, though. Bergin’s does a great job on its grilled halibut, which is perfectly cooked. On weekends, the special entree is prime rib, good and beefy and served with a big cup of beef juices and a little one of ground horseradish--not horseradish sauce, just horseradish.

For dessert, I’d probably go for the tavern sundae, a scoop or two of good vanilla ice cream with hot fudge sauce and walnuts. The other desserts tend to be something else in disguise. The apple crumble is like an apple coffeecake with streusel topping, the creme bru^lee is a vanilla pudding in a caramel crust, and the bread pudding is a raisin poundcake topped with a rich Irish whiskey caramel sauce.

But you don’t have to end a meal with dessert at all. Bergin’s has an age-old quarrel with the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco over which place introduced Irish coffee to this country, and Bergin’s’ mellow version is the standard against which a lot of people gauge Irish coffee. Absolutely order it if you’re angling to get your own shamrock on the wall someday.

BE THERE

Tom Bergin’s, 840 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 936-7151. Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, dinner 4-10 p.m. daily. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards. Dinner for two, $34-$72.

What to Get: shrimp cocktail, hamburger, Gaelic beef, prime rib, halibut, tavern sundae, bread pudding, Irish coffee.

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