Two rising-star restaurateurs have seen the future of a busy corner of downtown night life and it looks like Belgium.
Sure, Belgium hasn't exactly been a model of political comity lately. For a 541-day streak that ended in December, the country didn't even have a working government. But the low country does have a centuries-old tradition of monastic brewing, and these beers have become increasingly admired in L.A. That culture's passion for experimentation swept up first-time collaborators Ryan Sweeney (Verdugo Bar, the Surly Goat) and Andre Guerrero (Maximiliano, Oinkster).
Their new Arts District pub and restaurant, Little Bear, comes at a moment when craft beer has become so ubiquitous that even novice palates might be looking for a stronger fix than another good-enough IPA.
"German beer's purity laws limited brewers' creativity," Sweeney said, sitting at the zigzagging wood bar as they finished renovations on a weekday afternoon. After Prohibition, America also inherited Germany's taste for standardized beer. "But not so in Belgium. They can add spices, cloves or go for really high or low alcohol. It's more like wine, you want to smell the bouquet of it."
Little Bear — a bright, breezy and entirely unrecognizable revamp of the space that housed the Edwardian-goth pub Royal Clayton's — could also be an anchor for a newly busy swath of downtown night life. The area east of Alameda Avenue around Sixth and Seventh streets has become a night owl and gourmand's hub in its own right, with Cedd Moses' dude-scruff bar Tony's, artisanal pie-slingers Pizzanista, and easygoing wine bar Le Pour Haus among the many destination-hangs on downtown's eastern edge.
But first, the beer. Beer is the North Star of Belgian food and social life, with a diversity that spans fruit-infused lambics to strong brown abbey dubbels. These beers have taken Sweeney on Belgian booze-finding ventures that evoke a besotted Indiana Jones saga. Little Bear's revolving beer list — both imports and Belgian-style domestics — showcases his best finds, which on one night sported a coffee-hinted Serpent's Stout and brilliant garnet Moinette brune.
"Even in the Basilica of the Holy Blood, where they allegedly have some of Jesus' never-drying blood, there's an icon of St. Arnold, a patron saint of beer, by baby Jesus," Sweeney said. "There's one brewery, Westvleteren, where you have to take whatever they give you and no more than two cases. Then they take your name and you can't come back for a month."
Sweeney's other bars, all beer-centric, have leaned toward being pubs in the true sense, neighborhood places, even if a bit refined. Little Bear is a chance to go a bit wonky. Every beer comes with specific glassware to enhance the flavor, and the bar top is stenciled with Flemish brewery names to stir the imagination.
But man can't live on beer alone, so Little Bear's chef Guerrero had the task of crafting a menu around the beverage. While Belgian food is best known in America as frites with mayo, Guerrero took his talent for gilding working-class cuisines (Oinkster is pristine diner grub, Maximiliano's serves virtuosic red-sauce Italian) and applied it to an under-explored corner of culinary Europe. Waterzooi, a creamy chicken stew, and the Flemish simmered beef-and-ale staple Carbonnade de Flamande are some of the linchpins, while smaller plates explore the country's French (gougère cheese puffs) and Dutch (kroket pastries) influences.
"It is easy to find places serving a good selection of craft beers these days, but what we are doing is curating a very specific beverage program with a menu to complement," Guerrero said. "My brother went to chef school in Brussels and lived there for five years. I did get to spend some time there visiting and when he came home, he was always cooking Belgian and Dutch dishes. When we talked about doing a beer-focused restaurant, it seemed like a no-brainer to do one with a focus on Belgium."
Little Bear's outer-downtown location also underlined Guerrero and Sweeney's knack for setting up in neighborhoods just as they become scenes. Their other ventures became fixtures in Glassell Park, Eagle Rock and Highland Park, and though downtown's historic core is flush with bar and dining options, the Arts District is rapidly growing as a walkable night life nexus in its own right.
"This city is very fragmented, and some of the fragments are neighborhoods starving for good restaurants," Guerrero said. "One of the best artisanal bread bakers in L.A. is there. An Italian restaurant is opening there. Two high-profile coffee roasters are coming, and we already have Church and State, Pizzanista, Pour Haus and Daily Dose. Maybe, eventually, the Westsiders will travel east for a change."
Where: 1855 Industrial St. L.A.
Hours: Daily, 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
Price: Varies for beer; entrees $10-$19
Contact: (213) 622-8100; http://www.littlebearla.com