The faerie bit deep into the rich, smoky chocolate-and-bacon-covered strawberry at a stand just past the smithies, the privies and the stage where maidens fair and noble gentlemen link arms and dance English ceilidhs in celebration of spring.
It’s Natasha de Beauvesier’s first time surrounded by these splendors, and she came dressed for the occasion: pointed ears, a flower crown and plenty of shimmer. Her friend Sierra Barbour, a veteran of the fyne affair, saw to it.
“I forced her to come with me,” Barbour says. “I was like, ‘We’re getting dressed up, and we’re going.’”
Huzzah, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire hath returned for the first time since 2019, throwing open its entrance to lusty revelers, artisans, swarthy pirates and Angelenos simply looking to taste some of the finest meads and festival fare in all the land. Vendors are hawking flower crowns, drinking horns, herbal tea blends and artisanal wildflower honeys while the pop-up taverns declaring “COLD DRYNKS” attend to parched wayfarers.
More than 5 million people have attended the fair, which began in 1963 as a humble backyard gathering in Laurel Canyon, founded by then-husband-and-wife Phyllis and Ron Patterson. This year it returns after a two-year absence due to the coronavirus pandemic. An estimated 20,000 people doth gather each weekend, according to the event’s organizers, and the spring festival will continue through May 22 in Irwindale.
Prithee, pass under the faux pirate ship entrance gate and be greeted by a crush of costumed characters. Whether they’re attendees or hired actors portraying the royalty or peasantry of 16th and 17th century Elizabethan England is hard to say, but one thing will be certain: The fair is back.
A cluster of fyne food vendors sits at the heart of the faire; traverse ye the dusty path that snakes through 20 acres of blacksmith demos, taverns, knife throwing and archery stalls, and general merriment until you reach a wide, open field teeming with families, warriors, jesters, brawlers, knights and a string of concessions stands serving up skewered pork chops, whole artichokes and everything else fit to eat with your hands. At the field’s far end, Queen Elizabeth I herself makes an appearance for a ticketed afternoon tea service hosted by her royal highness.
“The whole idea is to get people to play the living history game,” PhyllisPatterson told The Times in 1987. “Our motto is to tickle into learning with a laugh.”
The love of staging and performance by the Pattersons led to expanding the festival into full theatrics in Agoura Hills, and after stints in other locales, it landed in Irwindale, hugging the curves of the Santa Fe Dam reservoir, where it’s taken place since 2005.
At the most popular food stall, the festival’s top-selling item displayeth in the name: TURKEY LEGS. Bobby Rinaldo and his wife, Leila, have sold food at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire for four decades.
“A friend unfortunately got me involved many, many years ago and it all went downhill from there,” Bobby jokes from behind the counter.
They didn’t always sell the apple of the fair-goer’s eye: They began with a bakery selling cakes, then added scones and cinnamon buns. When Cinnabon sprouted up in every mall in America it saturated the market outside of the fair, and guests at the event became less interested.
Like everything else in life, people’s tastes change, he says. But turkey legs have always been a mainstay.
When the former turkey-leg vendor bowed out of the festival, the Rinaldos stepped in. Now they’re the only ones serving the iconic treat.
“We have a monopoly!” Bobby says. “It’s not good in the oil industry, but in the turkey-leg industry, that’s a different story.”
The pair smoke the hearty haunches for three hours and can’t even begin to fathom how many they sell in a festival weekend, of which there are seven this season. Newcomers stop by dressed as maidens, fearsome pillagers or rogues, some hidden under feathered caps and others under parasols, all ready to sink their teeth into the tender, smoky birds, the scent like a siren song. One patron, wrestler Baron Rotza, tears into a leg with the ferociousness of a war-painted Viking (which, of course, he’s dressed to resemble).
The Rinaldos are happy to see them all. In the earlier days of the event, participants jokingly referred to each year as “the Last Annual Renaissance Faire” because they weren’t sure whether there would be another. When the pandemic hit, that name became more of a reality. Now, Bobby says, they’re just glad to be back.
At the corner of the food court sits a booth of equally modest title: Fish & Chips [and] Oysters. It’s where second-generation fair vendor Nick Napala hawks fresh seafood, just as his father did beginning in 1974. The fish and chips plate is the top seller, though the plump, buttery Washington oysters — sautéed in garlic, butter and white wine and served atop baguettes, or simply battered and fried — aren’t far behind.
Nearby, a scaly blue dragon by the name of Sapphire strides through the food court’s field, its jaws opening and closing as it goes.
Sean Bazzell sits atop it, or as part of it. The video-game refurbisher and distributor has made five or six dragon costumes through the years, all fashioned to look as though his human legs are the creature’s. He’s been attending the Renaissance Pleasure Faire since the 1980s, when it was still held in Agoura Hills.
A handle attached to Sapphire’s head snaps the dragon’s mouth, as if she’s readying to fight her owner for his paper tray of fish and chips from Napala. “I usually get a turkey leg — it’s just a little hard to fight with a turkey leg in this,” he says, laughing. “A little messier.”
In roughly 60 years, the fair has become a haven not only for those interested in elaborate costuming, but also community.
“We found a guy who didn’t have a group and he was like, ‘I just feel like I’m home among my people.’” says Colleen McAllister, a Culver City resident in her fourth year at the fair. “We were like, ‘You can hang out with us for as long as you need,’ and I think there’s a lot of people who come to find their people, to find friendship, and they do! You find your people. We’re all weirdos.”
McAllister hath spent the morning pre-gaming with her friends and her fiancé, Ed Matthews, who sipped cold brew coffee nearby while clad in a burlap sack. While most festivalgoers don the likes of velvet, bodices, feathered caps and other fineries, Matthews and his friends coordinated peasant-inspired costumes in an effort to represent the everyman.
“I mean, 90% of the population [of Renaissance-era Europe] was this,” he says, motioning to his burlap. He shakes his head and adds, “Elitist f—.”
After a morning of drinking, McAllister traversed the fair to seek the baked-potato stand, hoping to soak up all the alcohol — of which there is plenty.
Pop-up bars dot the festival’s dirt trail in the form of standalone taverns, each constructed of wood and bearing a name like the Crown and Anchor or the End of the World.
Year in and year out, the gem of them all is La Oubliette: the loudest and most lascivious walk-up bar, where busty wenches shout innuendo at customers (there’s no tip jar, save bustiered bosoms where dollars are hastily and bashfully inserted).
Typically, La Oubliette would layer beers with meads — that ancient honey wine of the gods — to create unique and playful poured concoctions. But due to pandemic restrictions, only canned beverages are allowed this year. Tis of no concern. It doesn’t stop the throng of thirsty, boisterous travelers from lining up, nor the saucy banter from the servers: “How would you like it, my lady? Fast or slow?”
Bianca Alvarez and Juston Trickett of Norwalk, make sure to patronize as many of the bars as they can, repeatedly filling up the drinking horns they carryeth across their chests. They bring the horns every year and also own what they call pirate bottles: little glass drinking vessels fastened by a crocheted holster (hers features a mermaid, his, a skull).
By the time the sun was bright o’er the last jousting match of the day, Alvarez had already sipped her way through pineapple mead, hard seltzer and mango wheat ale, while Trickett — clad as a jester, the bells at the points of his jaunty hat ringing softly with every sip — had been sampling an IPA and New Holland Brewing Co.’s Dragon’s Milk barrel-aged stout. The black stout is 11% ABV while the white is 6%, he notes, which spurs his girlfriend to proclaimeth, in short, that he’s a beer nerd.
“I’m a nerd in many ways,” he fires back with the timing of, well, a jester. At the Renaissance Pleasure Faire it’s understood that everyone is.
Stephanie Breijo is a reporter for the Food section and the author of its weekly news column. Previously, she served as the restaurants and bars editor for Time Out Los Angeles, and prior to that, the award-winning food editor of Richmond magazine in Richmond, Va. Born and primarily raised in Los Angeles, she believes L.A. to be the finest food city in the country and might be biased on that count but doesn’t believe she’s wrong.
Gary Coronado has been a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times since 2016. He is a 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist in feature photography for images of Central Americans risking life and limb as they jump aboard the trains from southern Mexico bound for the United States and a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist in breaking news photography for team coverage of hurricanes. He began freelancing for the Orange County Register and relocated to south Florida in 2001, when he was awarded a fellowship through the Freedom Forum. Coronado grew up in Southern California and graduated from USC.