Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Wednesday Dueling Beer Bar Blog

To begin with a conclusion, Hollister Brewing Company wins, as it has Pizza Port Po' Man's Double IPA on one of its guest taps. To unpack the inference of that conclusion--the heart of the best CA microbrewing is still 200 miles to Santa Barbara's south, in north county San Diego (Stone, Port, Alesmith, Alpine, Green Flash). In Santa Barbara we get interesting places with promise (I hope), mediocre service, solid enough food (one straining, one happily aimed at pubby), and did I say promise?

As you might know, 2 new brewpubs opened this Sunday, Hollister Brewing out in the Camino Real Marketplace and Downtown Brewing on Upper State St. (i.e. my neighborhood). Hollister actually brews on site; Downtown contracts with Firestone-Walker and makes some of its own beer in its San Luis Obispo location (which is why its decidedly uptown SB location has a funny name). On a lovely Sunday afternoon Amy and I visited Downtown; tonight Big Table and Trekking Left and I visited Hollister. And here's the scoop....

Downtown Brewing has by far the better space, simply by not being dropped into a box mall. Really, do you think it would be good to beer-up at Hollister and then head over to Costco? If you do, leave your credit cards at home to prevent that impulse HDTV buy. Downtown seems to have a room for any mood, unless you're into dungeons or something--a pool room, a large bar, a lounge area with comfy chairs to hold your own Spanish Beerquisition, a room Santa Barbara old-time styled with red pleather booths (it's like Harry's without the wear and tear), and two outdoor patios in a city where summer never sleeps.

Alas, it has beer not quite as good. Amy and I tried the taster sampler to get the lay of the lager (I know the problem with that word choice, but can't pass up on the alliteration), and while each brew started at okey-dokey, none left us doing the hokey-pokey (that is, ending by saying, "that's what beer's all about!"). The best of the lot were the IPA, sort of on the Red Tail model, hoppy enough but it won't scare too many people off, and the porter, which had a pleasing richness. Other beers include a blueberry without any hint of bubblegum, a wheat that doesn't suck like most American wheats (what about Paulaner Hefeweizen is so hard to copy?), and a honey wheat you might call honey but wouldn't necessarily call for a second date.

Since we went in the early afternoon we only wanted some snacks, and oddly paired wings and hummus. The hummus will keep you safe from vampires and French kissers, packing a garlicky, flavorful punch. The wings have a pleasing if more than likely "synthetic" crust to them, but the bleu cheese dressing could use some more cheese and less dressing. There are pizzas, salads, burgers, steaks, all the usual pubspects. You'll get a further report when later studies come in from the lab known as my expanding waistline.

As for the service, everyone is startlingly nice. One guy who I think is part owner or at least manager actually sat at our table with us to discuss the place and I find that friendliness charming--after all, I want it to be my cheerful Cheers as it's 7 minutes away by foot. Of course, niceness does not automatically equal togetherness. We got our food way before our beer, and after an effusive apology we got our beer but were told we could send it back if it was too warm. That's an instant flag for beer snob me--your beer can't be good approaching room temperature?! Of course, it was the place's opening day, and everyone can't be the Hungry Cat, about which I have to admit I have a horrible thing for--if I can admit to mancrushes (oh, Johan!) can I also admit to restaurant crushes? I mean, I spent a good half hour at work today writing Hungry Cat in fancy calligraphy and circling the name with heart doodles....

Hollister clearly has some higher ambitions, as befits a place run by Marshall Rose, the former Executive Director of SB's Downtown Organization, and a man who looks enough like John Cullum that I keep expecting him to break into "Shenandoah" at some point. (Sorry that I paused to pander to the Broadway geeks who read my blog, as if I have any.) For instance on the menu the soup of the day is called, and I wish I were kidding, "Liquid Produce from the Farmers Market." Its Hollister Burger--what all 3 of us ordered--is a "formed Masami Kobe burger," which is American Kobe-style beef and does not score on your taste buds as much as something named Kobe should. It's a good burger, but it's no Hungry Cat pug burger (local #1), or Quantum burger (probably #1A), or Paradise burger (the old fave before the new burgers came to town).

Still, all the meal's details were off. You can order either avocado, bacon, or grilled onions on the burger for $1.50 extra, and following my taste buds and not my wallet I opted for onions. Half of those came on Big Table's plate, not one of them was warm (I guess that they didn't vouch for when they were grilled), and I could barely fill a thimble with the amount I got. If you can buy a pound of supposedly currently high-priced onions for $1.49, even with mark-up I'd say Hollister owes me a half pound o' onions.

And while I won't make a big deal out of the patty being too small for its roll (or vice versa), I will carp about the fries (Quantum wins that competition). Big Table joked they were "too potatoey", but I prefer to think they weren't "fry-y" enough. I like that crispy shell-i-ness, that contrast of textures. And I can't remember the last time I ordered fries and thought they needed salt.

It's almost like tasting a beer and thinking it needs balance, which is what happened with Hollister's Magic Clamp Weizenbach. The malts were full, but the beer had a certain uncertainty, a sharpness that wasn't hop tang as much as cellar must-y. Otherwise what we drank we liked quite a bit. The Blown Out Stout is on its way to imperial style, with pleasing flavors and mouthfeel, and the Inaugural Pale Ale (IPA, get it?) is much better than its name. That said, the Port Double IPA whipped out its hoppy thumping stick and pummeled the Hollister IPA into submission.

As for the help here, it could use some. Our waitress seemed a bit at a loss to pick up on humor (we are funny, really!), or even exactly our orders at times. We ordered a first round while waiting for our table--the place seems quite popular already, especially with the nearby UCSB crowd (you can stumble home to F-T!)--and ordered a second with our food. It came after our food. That's not good.

To summarize, Downtown seems to be aiming lower and therefore stands a better chance of hitting its goal. Hollister wants to be something more, but that ambition gets illuminated, a bit, in its "guest beer" program aimed to bring hard-to-find in SB brews. They have the good taste and sense to bring Port, Port's related Belgian-style Lost Abbey, and Russian River. But is it one of the amazing Russian River beers like Damnation or Salvation? No, they have Dead Leaf Green Pale Ale. That's like opting to take Kate Jackson as your first draft choice from the original Charlie's Angels.

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Blogger Mike said...

All sounds good to me.

I'm easy when it comes to this whole beer, burgers, and endless summer thing.

Cali really is the Promised Land, isn't it?

3:42 AM  
Blogger tamom said...

I have to chime in about the Hollister brewing co. As a beer-loving Good Lander, the location couldn't be better. Finally! good beer in the good land! and while the IPA isn't the Port's, it is a far cry better than what the SB brewery now has... and the brewer is a gold medalist at the GABF for his IPA.
I would agree the service needs work and the menu tweeking, and the seating could be more comfortable. but overall this is an outstanding new addition that i am sure will be around for the long term.
and for the record, costco is much more fun after a couple pints.

9:40 AM  
Blogger folkstory said...

Thanks for the detailed food review. I like brewing places as eating spots as much as for the beer.

Mostly this is to celebrate the Broadway reference. Most readers know John Cullum from Northern Exposure, ER, and Law & Order, but thanks for reaching out to those of us who love obscure stage references. Shenandoah was a great show.

10:43 AM  
Blogger George said...

Mike, No. California is not the promised land. Everyone else in the country stay right where you are.

Tamom, I'm quite hopeful about Hollister--it's heart and hops are in the right place. Plus it's only been open a week.

Folkstory, when I was a highschooler in NJ, it was impossible to miss the TV commercial with Cullum belting out "Meditation" from that show.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to give my review of the Downtown, which falls right in line. Amazing space, but the food and beer were terrible. Seriously, how do you screw up Nachos?! Tiana our server did a fantastic job. Hopefully they will improve their kitchen staff, and everyone will learn to stay away from the house brew. I'll be back, but I am going to give them a month to work out the kinks

12:40 PM  
Blogger Trekking Left said...

Nice review, George ... captured the experience very well. Although, I thought the fries were trying too hard to be onion-ringy.

7:22 PM  
Anonymous El Rincon said...

Sounds like Hollister is in the IV tradition, grab the kids' money, they don't notice service. All in the tradition of the real WW Hollister and his attorney Huse, their purchase from Gus Den, and even Bishop's representation of Den...

FTers stumble home from DP, `cause fake ID's are a lot harder these days.

Only SB folks would link Costco and Hollister. Locals more likely to browse the bookstore, 30 paces from the new pub.

6:04 AM  
Anonymous Numfar said...

Went to Hollister on Sunday with the family. Great beer, promising food. (As for the weizenbock, the brewer told me last night he's not happy with it.)

I'm gonna check out Downtown today. I'll weigh in tonight.

8:38 AM  
Blogger George said...

El Rincon--

Sorry, but yes, I'm a Barbarian and not a Goletan. Still, to clarify I picked FT as it's closer, even if the age thing is an issue. (Plus in my college days the drinking age was 18 and I still can't believe we've abandoned such reasonableness.) I also have to call out your clever diction--I go to "Costco" but you go to the "bookstore." Let's call a Borders a Borders, shall we? I mean, I shop there, too, but we don't have to romance it.

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Goleta-Elle says... "Give me Cal-Taco and a smuggled
beer from next door any day!"

4:46 PM  
Anonymous Numfar said...

So here's my prediction: Hollister will pack 'em in for the next 10 years and Downtown will be gone in a year. It's pretty simple. Goleta needs Hollister. Does SB really need a faux brewpub in a cursed space with bad parking?

Let's start with the big three: location, location, location. Hollister, yes, is in a "box mall," but it's also the center of economic gravity in Goleta. Follow the money, as Mr. Felt said. Shopping is hard, thirsty work, and the great hordes of economy propper-uppers are desperate for a place with good food and a little something to ease the sting of their 30% credit cards.

Downtown is where, just off State and Hitchcock? Did you notice you can only enter its dinky parking lot, which it shares with a motel, from northbound State? Where will the bodies come from? The neighborhood? How many of your neighbors are gonna make the trek?

As for their spaces, I will give a the faintest nod to Downtown. You're right; it's kind of an amusement park with sectors of various themes. Look, there's Lounge Land! Patioville! Sports Bar Land! There's a little something for everybody in its acreage.

Hollister is a restuarant that makes its own beer. I don't think the space is used to its potential (the bar isn't very inviting), but it does the trick. You go in, have a meal and a beer, and leave. Bodies in, bodies out.

Which leads me to purpose. As in, what are they trying to do here? (Sorta like the school of film criticism that wonders, "Yes, it's a piece of shit exploitation flick, but does it succeed as a piece of shit exploitation cinema?") Hollister is easy: It's a brewpub. It makes its own beer and serves food. Downtown says it's a brewpub, but I say it ain't no such thing. First, it doesn't brew there. Although there are a few "brewpubs" that don't brew on premises (Mendocino in Hopland and Firestone in Buellton come to mind), they're at least satellites of breweries. Downtown has some of its own beer, but clearly the best on its taps come from Firestone. That's cheating.

So if it isn't a real brewpub, what is it? A cool bar with lots of beer and decent food. Great, but how many of those can this town support? How many beers and meals does it have to sell to make a back-breaking rent? Pardon all the questions, but did you ever go in there in its various incarnations? Can you even tell me what it was last? There's a reason it's a restaurant graveyard. (See: location.)

I'm a homebrewer who's spent much of the past 15 years visiting brewpubs all over the country (pathetic, maybe, but whaddaya do?), and I've seen what works and what ends up selling its equipment to starry-eyed homebrewers. Bottom line: Hollister is a long-term winner that hits all the right notes of the genre. The food and service may be iffy now, but give it a chance. Downtown, on the other hand, is well-intentioned but doomed unless it finds a way to transcend its crappy location. Maybe it'll become a hangout for Upper State hipsters, but I wouldn't count on it.

8:49 PM  
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10:55 PM  

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