At first glance, City Tavern seems like the quintessential modern American gastropub: exposed brick walls, bare beams, walnut surfaces, reclaimed wood flooring and a long line of local craft beer taps standing at attention behind the bar. But three booths near the back boast something never before seen in California: TableTenders. These self-serve spigots offer curious imbibers the opportunity to sample beer at their own pace, while giving managers the ability to monitor and control the amount of beer their patrons consume.
Brian McKeaney, who co-owns the Culver City tavern with Dave Northrup and Ken Kaufman (McKeaney and Kaufman also co-own popular Culver City bar-restaurant Rush Street), got the idea while visiting his native Chicago in 2008. There, McKeaney witnessed something he hadn't seen on the West Coast: tables at a bar equipped with taps that allowed patrons to pour their own beer — a patented computerized system called a TableTender. McKeaney immediately realized that he'd stumbled upon something big.
After tracking down manufacturer Table Tap LLC in Atlanta, McKeaney approached the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control about bringing it to City Tavern. The ABC agreed to sign off so long as McKeaney and company promised to handle the new beer dispensing technology "appropriately and responsibly."
As it turned out, Table Tap's founder, Jeff Libby, had already devised a computerized system to make that easy. With Libby's Web-based system, proprietors can not only track every drop of beer dispensed from their TableTenders in real time, they can even control the flow over the Internet, triggering electronic draft valves to open or close with the stroke of a key. Better yet, the TableTenders come programmed with an automatic shut-off that stops the flow of beer once a predetermined limit has been reached: 32 ounces per person, per table.
Patrons can also track and control their consumption using an interactive LCD screen. Because the system charges by the ounce, curious customers can sample the beer without having to pay for an entire pint. And patrons wanting to drink more than their 32-ounce limit can do so only after a server has verified their (relative) sobriety.
Libby thinks the system works well for patrons and proprietors alike. Proprietors sell more beer and reduce spillage, while patrons get to drink their beer fresh, without having to wait for servers, pour from pitchers or pay for beer they didn't drink.
"Most people either were a bartender or wanted to be a bartender at some point in their life," Libby said. "People just want to pull the handle."
At City Tavern, each of the three TableTender booths has three taps: one light, one medium and one dark. For now, the first handle will pour Telegraph White, the second Stone IPA and the third Lost Coast Downtown Brown — though general manager Matt Meiers promises to introduce some more challenging beers once people have become used to the system.
In the meantime, connoisseurs can choose from a more extensive selection behind the bar. With 21 rotating taps, City Tavern's draft list is already one of the most impressive in town and is devoted to California breweries, with an additional tap set aside for a hard cider produced in San Diego County. (There is also a selection of other bottled beers and a full bar.) And 20 of its taps are dedicated to Southern California brews — almost as many as Tony's Darts Away, the L.A.-area's premiere all-California craft beer bar.
But unlike Tony Yanow's namesake bar, which includes a more casual bar bites menu, City Tavern is a full-service restaurant, boasting a 28-item menu with a number of dishes — such as Arctic char, charcuterie and Jidori chicken — that look and taste as if they belong in a fine dining establishment. But there are plenty of standard bar bites, including a spicy grilled cheese sandwich and two different burgers.
Dave Northrup, Rush Street's executive chef, is excited for the new concept. He was getting bored with wine dinners at Rush Street, and the idea of hosting regular beer dinners appealed to him.
"A brewery can manipulate its product in so many different ways," Northrup said. "They really have an effect on what they put out there to people.... Beer is just so versatile."
With all City Tavern has to offer, it's still a gastropub, but it may be the gastropub of the future.
Where: 9739 Culver Blvd., Culver City
When: Sunday 3:30 p.m.- midnight; Monday-Wednesday 5 p.m.-midnight; Thursday-Friday 5 p.m. – 1 a.m.; Saturdayday 3:30 p.m.-1 a.m.
Price: Tasters $3-$5, glasses $6-$11; small share plates $5-$17
Info: (310) 838-9739; http://www.citytavernculvercity.com.