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
Labels: beer, beer is food, food, i'm hungry