Swinging Doors — The Chain Pubs of Los Angeles

Swinging Doors

In 2015, whilst vacationing in England, I ducked into the first pub I encountered in the tiny village of Crowmarsh Gifford. It was the first real English pub that I’d ever been in and whereas I had been led to believe that all pubs were cozy, warm, and woozily welcoming places, this one had an ambiance not dissimilar to that of a roadside hotel lobby. I don’t mean to suggest that it was completely lacking in charm, only that I half expected Alan Partridge to walk through the door and order a ladyboy from the bar.

 

Later I walked a block, crossed the street, and entered another pub. It was located inside the oldest secular building in the village, reckoned to have been constructed around 1341. That means it survived the Black Death and the English Civil War. I doubt that it was always a pub but if it was at the right time, it might very well have been patronized by the great Jethro Tull — the agricultural pioneer, not the progressive rock legends — although I could just as easily imagine Ian Anderson and crew saddled up to its bar.

In the pub’s lawn, a half-naked man wrestled with his dogs until the bartender admonished him to put on a shirt and behave. He introduced himself as Jez, and the subject of the other pub came up. Jez, it turned out, was banned from it — but he also casually mentioned that it was a chain pub anyway, part of the 225-location Hungry Horse empire, which I reckoned sort of explained the whole low-pile rug and laminated menu chic. I kind of liked both pubs, actually. Granted, if I lived in Crowmarsh Gifford — or Mackney, Shillingford, Rokemarsh, Winterbrook, North Stoke, or Little Stoke The Queen’s Head would probably be my Cheers. However, there are also times I wanna go where nobody knows my name… and I only know theirs because management requires them to wear a name tag.

When I returned to California, I wondered whether or not there was an American equivalent. I vaguely remember there being a Cheers which seemed to operate exclusively in airports and which no similarities to the sitcom bar aside from the fact that both sold beer. There’s actually (blurry) photographic evidence of my brother and me drinking at one at St. Louis Lambert International Airport in 2008. I believe the airport Cheers were operated by the Marriott hotel chain but evidence about them is surprisingly scant and I’m not even sure whether or not they still exist.

Lo and behold, there’s a place called Cheers Bar & Grill located nearby in San Gabriel but judging by the online images, the dimly lit bar bears almost no similarity its sitcom namesake, featuring as it does a menu of fruity cocktails, banks of televisions, live music, beer pong, karaoke, and a clientele which appears to mostly consist of young, Asian bros rather than middle-aged white guys. It’s also actually a block south of Uncle Yu’s Indian Theme Restaurant, my favorite Taiwanese pijiu wu, which is probably why I’ve never noticed it before.

A few months after I returned to California, an article by Nicola Twilley appeared in The New Yorker which reignited my curiosity about the possible existence of American chain pubs, titled “How T.G.I.Friday’s Helped Invent the Singles Bar.” To be honest, I’d never really given much thought to places like T.G.I.Friday’s, Chili’s, or Applebee’s before, but the idea that all had begun more or less as single’s bar chains fascinated me. I don’t even remember their existence as a child, although they almost certainly were present in central Missouri, where I grew up. Needless to say, my mother never mentioned them and my dad preferred to have his liquid lunches at the non-chain (and now non-existent) Boone Tavern.

In college, when I was delivering flowers and pizza (for two different businesses), I remember signs for both Applebee’s and Chili’s along 2nd street in Coralville, Iowa (aka the “Coralville Strip”). Eating at either of them never crossed my mind as I honestly assumed that one specialized in apple pies and the other, chili. I don’t remember whether or not there was a Hooters, but had you told me they specialized in owl meat, I’d probably have believed you and carried on eating at non-chain pubs like the Wig & Pen.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar.jpg
Poster for Looking for Mr. Goodbar

I owe my introduction to both T.G.I.Friday’s and Applebee’s to my first girlfriend, and the fact that in both cases, we were in an unfamiliar city where I wasn’t in a position to suggest an alternative except for “anywhere but here.” In 2016, Lisa Hix‘s “The Death of Flair: As Friday’s Goes Minimalist, What Happens to the Antiques?” appeared in Collectors Weekly and reported that T.G.I.Friday’s was getting a Millenial-bait makeover (i.e. brunch, communal seating, use of the words “artisinal,” cold pressed juices, &c), and although I’d by then only ever been to two (the second in Costa Mesa, because it seemed like the most convenient place to eat near Isamu Noguchi‘s sculpture garden, California Scenario) it annoyed me slightly that they were ditching Victorian hoarder chic for steamyuppie realness… but then is it really any more drastic than the shift from sleazy Looking for Mr. Goodbar/Regal Beagle-era singles haunt to post-AIDS crisis/refreshingly-soulless, family-friendly, casual dining franchise? And since my experience with them is so limited, can I really muster up sufficient and all-important outrage? Naturally, I decided to plunge myself into the world of chain pubs — but not without first conducting a bit of research and compiling this guide.

Regal Beagle
Inside the Regal Beagle

As is probably true in most cities, the natural environment of the chain pub is the suburban Kuiper belt. There are pockets of them in Los Angeles’s neighbors including Burbank, Glendale, Long Beach, Torrance, Santa Clarita. Santa Clarita, in fact, has the most, which is understandable because in addition to being the fourth most populous city in Los Angeles County, having been created in 1987, it’s also probably the closest local equivalent we have to a British “new town.” Being a city which attracts a lot of tourists, there are also pockets of chain pubs in zones where they tend to congregate and many locals avoid — Central Hollywood and Downtown’s Vegas-lite South Park district. In the San Fernando Valley, there are also a couple of chain pub hubs, including Northridge and the “Century City of the San Fernando Valley,” Warner Center. Orange County and the Inland Empire, I suspect, are also home to their fair share and in fact, the few friends who’ve ever suggested visiting them have without exception been from either one or the other.

 


T.G.I. FRIDAY’S

The first T.G.I Friday’s opened in the birthplace of the modern suburb, New York, in 1965. The pill had debuted in 1960, the Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, and respectable women were just beginning to venture into bars. T.G.I.Friday’s was founded by Alan Stillman after he took over The Good Tavern, and had it decorated with dark wood, brass rails, bentwood chairs, Tiffany-style lampshades, various antiques, and red striped everything, all meant to make single women feel comfortable, like they were hanging out in the parlors of their grandmothers’ cluttered Victorian homes.

T.G.I. Friday’s was franchised in 1967. In 1975, it was sold to a corporation. It again sold in 1986, and once more in 1989 — that’s when the new owners decided to shift the focus from singles to families. The original location, at 63rd Street and First Avenue, closed in 1994. In 2014, T.G.I. Fridays was sold to New York City-based Sentinel Capital Partners and TriArtisan Capital Partners. Recently, they have toyed with renaming the chain, simply “Fridays” and who launched a Food truck tour to show “curated” menu.


RED ROBIN

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews was founded as Red Robin in Seattle, Washington in September 1969. The original location was at the intersection of Furhman and Eastlake avenues, where it took over the space formerly occupied by Sam’s Red Robin. Sam’s Red Robin, corporate legend has it, was so named because owner Sam just loved to sing “When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along)” and did so regularly in a barbershop quartet.

 

Chili’s Grill & Bar was founded in Dallas, by Larry Lavine, in 1975. The first location was situated in the Vickery Meadows neighborhood on Greenville Avenue. A new building was constructed on the same site in 1981. In 1983, Chili’s was sold to restaurateur Norman E. Brinker, formerly of the Pillsbury restaurant group. One of the most annoying jingles in the dark history of annoying jingles was the one Guy Bommarito wrote about baby back ribs (although interestingly, he’s never eaten them). Last year, I finally ate at a Chili’s in Mexico City, because although that city is inarguably one of the world’s great food cities, its Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México is not.


BJ’s RESTAURANT & BREWHOUSE

The oldest local chain pub of which I’m aware is BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse. Its roots are in a pizzeria called Chicago Pizza & Brewery, which opened in Huntington Beach in 1978. In 1996, BJ’s acquired a 26-location chain, Pietro’s Pizza and today it also operates six breweries. Although Chicago Pizza & Brewery soldiered on until 2004, as it expanded most other locations were known by some variation on the initials “BJ,” including BJ’s Restaurant & Brewery, BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, and BJ’s Pizza & Grill.

My first experience in a BJ’s was around 2000, when I was invited along with other folks working in Burbank Village to attend some kind of local business Christmas party and some older man kept aggressively hitting on me. I’ve actually been to a couple of BJs since, most recently in 2013 when I visited one for the purpose of charging my phone whilst walking the route of the Purple Line extension.


APPLEBEE’S

The first Applebee’s opened in Decatur, Georgia on 19 November 1980, and originally had the suitably old-timey name,  T.J. Applebee’s Rx for Edibles & Elixirs. The owners, Bill and T. J. Palmer, opened a second location before selling them to an American chemical conglomerate, W. R. Grace and Company. In 1986, the new owner rebranded it Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar. As I mentioned earlier, I first visited on with my first girlfriend, when we were visiting some of her family in Batavia, Chicagoland. I remember it was a stand-alone place surrounded by the parking lot of a shopping center and I was almost certainly a bit sniffy about it. Apparently, it has since closed, because casual dining in mall parking lot restaurants isn’t what it used to be.


BUFFALO WILD WINGS

Buffalo Wild Wings was founded not in Buffalo, but some 525 kilometers southwest, in the city of Columbus. Its corporate legend is that its founders, Jim Disbrow and Scott Lowery, dreamt up the idea of a Buffalo cuisine-serving restaurant claimed that the two dreamed up the concept whilst attending a figure skating competition at Kent State University. They initially named their restaurant, Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck — “beef on weck” apparently being another staple of the Buffalo dining scene. The two opened a second restaurant in Westerville, OhioThe restaurants were first franchised in 1990. In 1998 the name was changed to Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar.


ISLANDS

Islands Fine Burgers & Drinks was founded in West Hollywood in May 1982, making it perhaps the oldest extant Los Angeles chain of its sort. As with all, it too has a creation myth, although compared to others’ it’s not terribly colorful. Legend tells that the chain’s founder, Tony DeGrazier, had the idea to open a bar and grill after hitting the waves of Oahu with his fellow Navy servicemen in the 1960s.


HOOTERS

Six men incorporated the first Hooters on April Fool’s Day of 1983, in Clearwater, Florida. The first location opened in October of that year. Several of Hooter’s honchos were from Waverly, Iowa, and there gathered the all-important bric-a-brac with which to clutter their establishment. They then sold the restaurant in 1984.

Several of my friends have spoken highly of Hooters’ wings, and as a vegetarian, I have take their word for it. However, another of the chain’s chief draws are the servers, referred to by the chain as “Hooters Girls” in what fails to rise to the level necessary to pass as double entendre. Ironically, though, the uniform of the Hooters girl seems strangely designed to make them as unattractive as possible, involving as it does orange shorts, shiny brown hose, and thick socks pushed down over white athletic shoes. If it sounds like something designed by Kelly Bundy for a Whitesnake video, it should come then as little surprise that the original Hooters Girl, Lynne Austin, appeared in both Playboy and the Married… with Children episode, “Her Cups Runneth Over.” Despite my discomfort and vegetarian indifference to “really good wings,” I reluctantly experienced my first Hooters a couple of years ago because, hard as it may be to believe, dismal Downtown Phoenix has no better options — despite being the nation’s fourth most populous city.


YARD HOUSE

The first Yard House opened in Long Beach in 1996. Its founders were Steele Platt, William Wollrab, and two others whose names are forgotten to time. In 2012, the chain was purchased by Darden Restaurants for $585 million. The chain’s tagline is “great food, classic rock” but, their definition of “classic rock” is hardly traditional, including as it does acts like DJ Khaled, Blur, Muse, Imagine Dragons, and EMF. The headquarters are currently based in Irvine, Orange County’s capital of innovation and home of classic rock.

I first visited a Yard House a couple of years ago, finding myself in South Park for Una’s citizenship ceremony. South Park boasts a Denny’s, a Hooters, a Big Wang’s, and not one but two Starbucks (at least) and I chose Yardhouse because I’d not heard of it before. Turns out its one of the favorite chain pubs of my friend and Orange County native, Matt, (the other is Islands), who is something of an authority on the subject. In fact, about a week ago, Una and I met him at the Pasadena location for some lunch and classic rock before we went to the cinema.


LAZY DOG RESTAURANT & BAR

In an age where casual dining chains are in apparent decline, and restaurants like KFC and Taco Bell are given steamyuppie makeovers, it’s somewhat surprising and maybe even admirable that someone would launch a new, old-fashioned ’80s/’90s-style chain pub, and yet Chris Simms did so in 2003 in Westminster, when he opened the Lazy Dog Cafe.

Simms’s father and business partner, Tom Simms, formerly ran a chain of restaurants called Mimi’s Cafe and apparently, Simms the Younger dreamed of starting his own chain. First, he wanted to name it Rocky Mountain Café, but legend has it that whilst a manager of a P.F. Changs, he decided to honor black labrador, Mattie, by calling it Lazy Dog, which he additionally determined would appeal to children. Later, he changed the name of Lazy Dog Café to Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar, which he probably determined would appeal to adults.


BIG WANGS

When the first Big Wangs appeared in Hollywood, around 2005, I assumed from its appearance that it was a shoddy bootleg Hooters — or a rip-off, where, instead of tight tops the waitstaff would parade around with bulging Tom of Finland crotches. I also assumed that its awful logo — a crude drawing of a bicep-flexing chicken in wrap-around sunglasses — had been designed and drawn as a favor by a thirteen-year-old relative of the owner who everyone in the family agreed was “a good drawer.”

At the time I worked around the corner, at Amoeba, and since they served beer, some co-workers and I decided to check it out on our lunch breaks. The effect was a bit like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, assuming Narnia is the name of a small town in Kansas. On their website, the tab, “our story,” states “Oh, we also have more HD TVs than anyone else in LA” which isn’t exactly a story. It’s also, for someone like me who prefers to drink in relative peace and quiet, a bit like bragging that you subject all of your patrons to the Ludovico Technique. Little more can be gleaned from the media, although apparently the guys who thought “Big Wangs” was a good name are named Peter Brill and Joe Barker. This I found because in 2010 they were sued by a former child actor from the show Home Improvement, who’d invested in their business and felt that they’d ripped him off.

As awful as it is, I sort of admire Big Wangs for having the guts (or cluelessness) to open on Cahuenga Boulevard when they did. Back then, Cahuenga was the province of club-hopping, underfed hipsters whose “Cahuenga crawl” incorporated visits to the Beauty Bar, the Burgundy Room, Star Shoes, and all points between — except for Big Wangs. I was surprised when Big Wang’s expanded like its mascot, the genetically deformed Frankenchicken. There are currently locations in the NoHo Arts District and South Park. Again defying all logic, however, the location in a Stevenson Ranch shopping center — just outside of Santa Clarita — recently went out of business.


CONGREGATION ALE HOUSE

congregation-ale-house-3
Inside Congregation Ale House

Congregation Ale House was founded by Travis Ensling, who prior to founding the chain ran Cafe Mundial in Monrovia. He opened the first location of Congregation Ale House in Long Beach in 2010. A Pasadena location became the second “chapter.” The Azusa location opened in 2013 and a fourth location is coming to Santa Ana. The somewhat unlikely theme of Congregation Ale House, for the uninitiated, is “church.” However, the music played at them is mostly commercial ’90s rock — not gospel or Gregorian Chants, the staff don’t wear religious habits, and most disappointingly, the televisions are tuned to sports matches rather than, say, apocalypse bucket-peddler Jim Baker‘s show. I believe they refer to tips as “offering” though. I’ve actually eaten at two-thirds of the chain’s chapters, once on a Gold Line pub crawl and the other when it was managed by my friend, Mike.

Did I miss any chain pubs? If so, let me know in the comments.


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other varieties of spam. Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 GalleryHe is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiTwitter, and Weibo.
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One thought on “Swinging Doors — The Chain Pubs of Los Angeles

  1. Unfortunately, Eric, if you come here to England these days, you will need to discover from some local, where the real olde world pubs are. This is because most good pubs have shut down and been replaced by the dreaded chains, like the Hungry This or That. In general, look for a boozer that has a micro-brewery attached – this is where the real drinkers go.

    Liked by 1 person

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