It is toward midnight at the Pikey, the lights are fairly low and the Kinks are playing so loudly that you swear you can hear Ray Davies scratching his ears. You are seated beneath one of Ben Watts’ photographs of aging Teddy Boys — tattooed Robert Mitchum types in dark, bespoke suits, and you may be drinking something called a Divine Brown, a peculiar mixture of Ancient Age whiskey and Dr Pepper named for the hooker caught with Hugh Grant just a few blocks from here in Hollywood.
You will definitely be observing members of the crowd — in their early 20s — who don’t sit down to dinner as much as drift from table to table, having a drink here and an appetizer there before vanishing into the night. You will be wondering just who ends up getting stuck with the bill.
Then the Welsh rarebit shows up, a square of burnt toast drenched in orange goo, a preparation that smells like every dinner party your parents ever threw: cheesy and drunken and scented with Worcestershire sauce, plus that aroma that seems to come only with broiling. You are momentarily 6 years old again, waiting for somebody to fish the cherry out of his Manhattan for you. You take another pull on your Divine Brown. It will do.
It seems like only yesterday that I visited my first gastropub (or was it a brewpub?), City of Angels Brewing Co., which differed from a regular restaurant only in the fancy meat used to make the hamburgers and the size of the beer tanks in the front window. Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger were the chefs. That menu was the first in town, I think, displayed on both cupcakes and oyster shooters. It didn’t last. Then Wolfgang Puck opened a brewpub/gastropub too, which also didn’t last, because the beer wasn’t particularly good (although Eureka did kick off the butterscotch pudding thing), and that was pretty much it for gastropubs for a while. Except in London. In London, gastropubs flourished like weeds.
In 2012 Los Angeles, of course, it is occasionally difficult to find a new restaurant that isn’t a gastropub, where there aren’t at least half a dozen beers bitter enough to choke a Bud Lite aficionado, where the plates aren’t meant for sharing, where the music doesn’t pound aggressively enough to send whitecaps skittering across your pint of Scrimshaw Pils.
In London, a gastropub is recognizably a pub — there may be a dish of wild mushrooms and pappardelle, and you may hear a bit about the organic provenance of the cow in the beef-and-ale pie, but unless the venue is exceedingly posh, there will usually be Welsh rarebit, shepherd’s pie, and a plate of steak and chips, and raspberry fool alongside the flourless chocolate cake. Here, gastropubs, interchangeable with tapas bars, izakayas, pojangmachas and mezcalerias, are generally not pubs in the traditional sense.
But the Pikey — the Pikey is a pub. Owner Sean MacPherson, who has been rocking the Los Angeles bar scene since Motley Crue played the clubs, carved the place out of a distinctly un-gastro pub, the Coach & Horses. The pool table is gone and your shoes no longer stick to the floor, but a nostalgic Iron Maiden roadie would still recognize the place.
The chef, Ralph Johnson, comes from the Spotted Pig, the restaurant that started the gastropub rage in New York a decade ago. There are only three beers on tap (a pub only needs three). Some nights, the most popular drink order at the Pikey is the Coach & Horses: a shot of Ancient Age and a tallboy of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
As at most London gastropubs, the thing here is pub food constructed from the produce of the farmers market rather than purchased by the freezer full; a burrata bruschetta topped with roughly mashed fresh peas, for example, instead of the inevitable mushy peas; or potted chicken livers that come across as a creamy, sweet pâté.
If you’ve eaten at the Spotted Pig, you know that the pig’s ear is a specialty, and here Johnson slices the ear into thick batons, fries them bacon-crisp and tosses them with a kale salad dressed with a sharp, mustardy vinaigrette.
You know that the place will serve fish and chips, and there it is: a big slab, more delicately battered than you may remember from a corner shop, served with a version of Heston Blumenthal’s famous triple-fried potatoes, “thrice cooked chips,” a landmark of modernist gastronomy that come across simply as really good fries. A braised lamb shank, that gastropub staple, is braised until spoonable, served over mashed potatoes with a thick, umami-intensive brown gravy that probably has ignoble origins but serves the purpose nonetheless.
Still, it is easy to oversell this place. The “char-grilled beef burger with bandaged cheddar” is an over-compacted cheeseburger — not bad, but also not on anyone’s top-10 list. The vinegared chicken is as dry and sweet as misguided neighborhood Cantonese. You will probably not be happy with the sliced flatiron steak, which arrives at the table as juiceless as the dry end of a roast beef.
But the Indian touches are nice, like the vigorously spiced cauliflower; the curried chickpeas, like chana masala, under the sautéed squid; or the fennel seeds tossed into a heap of braised greens. The dense pappardelle with oxtail ragù is unexpectedly good — the Spotted Pig sometimes has a similar dish — and the pan-roasted striped bass, bread-crumbed skin crisp as potato chips, melts into its Italianate jumble of sautéed vegetables.
The only possible dessert is Johnson’s splendid interpretation of a fruit fool, a mass of cream studded with bits of meringue in the manner of an Eton mess and swirled in a parfait dish.
Los Angeles is flooded with grastropubs, but most of them aren’t really pubs in the true sense of the word. The Pikey is the real deal. There are three beers on tap, and fish and chips is on the menu.
7617 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 850-5400, thepikeyla.com
Snacks, $4-$5; small plates, $11-$16; main courses, $14-$27
Open 11:45 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking.