Let's tip one back together, lads

Times Staff Writer

IF you're at all interested in drinking good beer in L.A., sooner or later you'll find yourself in one of the city's British or Irish pubs.

No other category of bar, lounge, restaurant or cafe takes beer as seriously. Even the most modest pubs have a dark-medium-light trio of stellar imports on tap, often Guinness, Bass and Harp. Many have a hard cider plus a couple of well-respected English ales such as Boddingtons, Fuller's and Newcastle. A few pubs have dozens of draft lagers, ales and stouts with the occasional West Coast microbrew thrown in -- plus a generous selection of bottled beers.

The two Lucky Baldwins pubs (in Pasadena and Sierra Madre) serve scores of Belgian beers on tap. And spirits connoisseurs can often find a good selection of Irish whiskies -- not only Bushmills, Jameson, but also Powers, Midleton Very Rare and Tullamore Dew.

Some places may seem more Irish because they have the Setanta Sports channel (which carries Gaelic sports such as hurling and Irish football) and serve Smithwick's, an Irish ale, on tap, as well as Magners hard cider, also Irish, as opposed to Strongbow or Blackthorn, both English ciders.

But Sonny McLean's in Santa Monica adds a twist -- it has a Boston Irish bent, with lobster rolls on the menu and Boston sports team fans as regulars.

And although a British expat may drink in an Irish pub, and an Irishman may patronize (or even own, as in the case of Ye Olde King's Head in Santa Monica) a British pub, only British pubs offer you the option of mushy peas.

But some have food that's pretty good.

During the last three months, I've visited more than 35 pubs in L.A. County, dropping in on weekends with my husband, meeting girlfriends after work, prevailing upon Guinness-loving colleagues to steer me to their haunts, drawing up lists and setting out with itineraries that included between-meal hikes (this was not a weight-loss research experience).

We sampled stouts, ales, lagers, ciders and specialty pub drinks including Snakebites, Black and Tans and Shandies. We ordered fish and chips, chicken curry, Cornish pasties, Scotch eggs and "Irish nachos." We watched American football, English soccer, Irish football, rugby, golf and a Dodgers game.

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The challenge

FINDING pubs with good food, though, was a challenge. Some seem to be stuck in a theme-food never land, offering "traditional fayre" that regulars know better than to order.

But as the stream of Irish and British immigrants has slowed, pubs that once relied on expats have reached out to beer-lovers of all stripes. And great food, from perfectly spiced samosas to the occasional excellent sherry trifle, is becoming a real draw.

In the end, there are more than a dozen pubs to recommend, each with unique specialties. And, because pub crawling in L.A. means driving from one end of the county to another, there are discoveries in every part of town. Which is as it should be. An Angeleno's list of locals should include spots near home, near the workplace, near some friends' houses and in other people's neighborhoods we might want to visit sometime.

A great L.A.-area pub has four main attributes: It offers a good selection of beers on tap and sells a lot of those beers so they're always fresh and lively; it serves delicious, fresh, beer-friendly food, whether it's simply well-fried pub grub or more ambitious dishes; it's integrally connected to the neighborhood but is welcoming to visitors. And it has personality.

This last characteristic is where the going gets fun. There are all sorts of esoteric details that contribute to a pub's persona.

Some of L.A.'s best pubs have been around for a long time (by our standards), like the 26-year-old Cat & Fiddle in Hollywood, where the seemingly contemporary menu, including a rich, delicious vegetarian shepherd's pie made with lentils, has been in place since the beginning. Others, such as the 2-year-old Auld Dubliner, part of the recently redeveloped Pike area of Long Beach, are just getting acquainted with the neighborhood. (The Auld Dubliner's curry-dusted chips should ease the way.)

Some pubs, such as Limerick's in the Naples area of Long Beach, are beachy, and it doesn't seem at all out of place to arrive in your Hawaiian shirt and order fish tacos (made with beer-battered cod "Baja-Irish style"), although there's also superlative homemade brown bread and soda bread.

Other pubs are suburban, such as Ireland's 32, a dark cave of a place in Van Nuys, where the Sunday afternoon crowd consists of married couples watching the game and the owner's grandkids stopping by for a visit.

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Bar specialties

SOME, such as Tom Bergin's, take pride in their drinks, with not only fresh beer and straight-ahead bar selections but also pub specialties such as Half and Half (lager and stout) or a Snakebite (lager and hard cider). They sound like joke drinks but they're surprisingly appealing on some occasions.

And they go with the joke food that seems to surface from time to time (such as the deep-fried pickles at Casey's).

I like places that offer half-pints, because they seem more food friendly -- it's hard for many of us to accompany a meal with 16 ounces of beer. Some folks gravitate toward the chance to order English breakfast, but it's a meal only an expat could love.

Once you hit the trail, you'll end up with your own list of preferred pubs -- ones that have your favorite brews or have a great jukebox or serve a nice Sunday roast. And you'll keep adding to that list.

Because in L.A. we can't have just one local.

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Snakebite

Total time: 1 1/2 minutes

Servings: 2

Note: Use a high-quality imported lager such as Harp and a high-quality imported hard cider such as Blackthorne, both widely available in bottles. If you add the optional black currant liqueur (cassis), you'll have a version of a drink called Snakebite and Black. It's made in Britain and in L.A. pubs such as the Cat & Fiddle by adding a bit of Ribena, a noncarbonated British soft drink (available in some British import shops).

1 (12-ounce) bottle cold lager

1 (11.2-ounce) bottle cold hard cider

2 tablespoons black currant

liqueur (optional)

Pour half a bottle of the lager and half a bottle of the hard cider into each of two 12-ounce or larger glasses. Add a tablespoon of black currant liqueur to each drink. Stir.

Each serving: 177 calories; 0 protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 7 mg. sodium.

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Half and half

Total time: 1 minute

Servings: 2

Note: Guinness Draught Bottles and Harp Lager are widely available. You may also combine the beers without "floating" the Guinness.

1 (11.2-ounce) bottle cold

Guinness Draught

1 (11.2-ounce) bottle cold

Harp Lager

Vigorously (so it develops a good head) pour half a bottle of Harp into each of the two 12-ounce or larger glasses. Slowly add the Guinness, pouring it over the back of a spoon held at an angle into the glass. The light and dark beers will stay separated for some time.

Each serving: 157 calories; 2 grams protein; 16 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 20 mg. sodium.

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