A beer lover’s favorite, this Santa Monica restaurant/bar on Main Street is pleasing palates with an improved menu while upholding its diverse beverage list.
Idyllic Main Street in Santa Monica, with its boutiques, eateries and festooned lights, stands out from the cookie-cutter stores and restaurants found in most shopping areas. Main Street is all about unique, eclectic, old-school charm, as found at Library Alehouse, a Southern California favorite since 1995 known for its extensive list of craft beers and laid-back, friendly atmosphere.
Like most afternoons, the bar at Library Alehouse is filling up fast, mostly with men talking about beer, a favorite subject, while a handlebar mustachioed bartender offers tastes of the latest craft beers listed on the blackboard.
As the amber liquid flows and the sun goes down, the volume of the chatter picks up. The boys are relaxing, talking about who made what, where it came from, who has tried it. Library Alehouse is about discovering new beers — Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux, Smog City Smoked Smaug Lager, Firestone Velvet Merlin — to name just a few. It’s not the place to come for a Bud Light.
“Some patrons call it the Library ‘Male’ House,” jokes general manager and resident beer expert Alex P. Davis, when I ask if it’s true that beer is a man’s drink, “but it’s starting to swing the other way.” It might be, but from a single woman’s point of view, drinking a beer here, rather than sipping wine elsewhere with a flock of girlfriends, is beginning to look like a fine idea.
Davis is the Library Alehouse’s Certified Cicerone, what a sommelier is to wine. He says that beer chose him, he didn’t choose it. “It was like, eureka!” he says about the night he was out with friends and they tried a bottle of Westmalle Tripel, a Belgian beer made by Trappist monks. “From that point on, it was down the rabbit hole.”
Although he finished law school at UCLA and passed the bar, nowadays 30-year-old Davis gets paid to develop a diverse list of craft beers for the aficionados at Library Alehouse, a job he’s enjoyed since 2010. “I love being around people and being able to deliver an experience for our customers – and I get paid to drink beer.”
It’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Davis has learned everything he can about beer, taking notes about flavor nuances, making connections with boutique breweries and getting his certification as a Cicerone, an accreditation that includes knowledge of beer style, beer history and how to properly serve, store, choose and select beers. Together with 45-year-old chef/owner Tom Hugenberger, who purchased Library Alehouse in May 2012, the two are working to integrate the eclectic beer list with Hugenberger’s elevated level of food preparation.
Taking over an 18-year-old establishment with a devout following presented some unique challenges for the half-Dutch, Korean-born Hugenberger, who graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and was a popular chef instructor at The Art Institute of Los Angeles. “There were people who literally came up to me, angry, and they’d go, ‘You better not change anything. This is our spot.’ My ongoing joke with some of the clientele was that I was going to make it a drive-thru Chinese restaurant. They’d tell me, ‘You can’t do that!’ and I’d say, ‘It’s a joke! Where would I put a drive-thru?’”
Despite the clientele’s resistance to change, Hugenberger was determined to upgrade the quality of the cuisine. He started by using local ingredients, organic when possible, often purchased at farmers’ markets and employing a caliber of preparation usually only found in higher-priced restaurants. “We don’t use powders – we don’t do any of that kind of thing,” says Hugenberger, who’s known for his expertise in layering textures and flavors. “Everything’s made fresh. I’m trying to bring my fine dining experience to a bar/restaurant.”
Hugenberger gradually introduced new menu items to the bar regulars. “We did that for about a month,” Hugenberger says, “just teasing them with new things and new flavors. And after a while, they were asking, ‘What are you going to make new this week?’”
The menu that customers find at Library Alehouse today is a huge step up from a typical bar restaurant, with a mouthwatering list of burgers, appetizers, soups and salads alongside entries sure to please the most demanding gourmand. How about beer-brined chicken, spice-rubbed, roasted and served with seasonal vegetables and dried fruit chutney; pan-seared Skuna salmon served with artichoke barigoule and spinach; or roasted beets with Maggie’s Farm arugula, Fuji apple, goat cheese, cherry-walnut crumble, crispy beet chips and Banyuls ginger vinaigrette?
Hugenberger, more accustomed to using wine in his recipes, says Davis opened his eyes to the possibilities of pairing beer with food and using it as an ingredient. “I think from day one we were a good match because he’s a foodie, as well,” he says. “He’s taught me a lot about beer, he understands flavors and nuances. We can talk out a recipe or put together a pairing and come up with something that’s amazing because we’ve got two heads working on the same thing.”
Davis says he also enjoys his collaboration with Hugenberger. “We’re delivering an experience that people might not have otherwise thought possible through both beer and food,” he says. “Having Tom in the kitchen helps me with that because the food is so much better now. It’s not just, ‘Oh, the beer is amazing and the food’s pretty good.’ Now it’s ‘the beer is amazing and the food is amazing, and they taste really great together.’”
By now the sun has finally set and the bar and tables at Library Alehouse are full. The scent of caramelizing onions drifts through the bar, and suddenly, the idea of something to eat from Hugenberger’s menu, paired with an ice-cold beer, is an irresistible idea. Tonight, maybe the Hell Burger with USDA prime chuck, ghost pepper aioli, pasilla, habanero, jalapeno, grapefruit and pepper jack on a brioche bun. As for the beer? Just ask Davis, he’ll be delighted to help find the perfect match.
Copyright © Kim Calvert/2013 Singular Communications, LLC.
Beer-Paired Holiday Dinner at Library Alehouse
Singular magazine cordially invites you to enjoy a festive holiday, 3-course gourmet dinner prepared by Chef/Owner Tom Hugenberger and paired with a variety of special beers selected by Certified Cicerone Alex P. Davis on Sunday, December 15, starting at 5 p.m. at Library Alehouse located at 2911 Main St., Santa Monica.
Served on the charming heated dining patio, each course will be served with a 6 oz. craft beer, presented by Alex. The meal, made with farmers’ market ingredients and conceived specifically for this event by Tom, is as follows:
Amuse-Bouche: Chilled Cucumber Soup
1st Course: Beet Terrine with arugula, goat cheese, vinaigrette
2nd Course: Seared Skuna Salmon served over Crab-Smashed Potatoes or a veggie option of Quinoa-Filled Roasted Squash mixed with dried fruit, toasted nuts, agave and toasted coriander, served over curried squash puree
3rd Course: Apple Tarte Tatin
The cost is $35 and includes tax and tip. If you’re a SingularCity member, your ticket is $25 when you enter the member-only discount code at checkout.