The small island of Jersey, nestled near the bay of Saint-Malo just off the coast of France, packs plenty into its 45 square miles of land – plenty of milk, courtesy of its famous cows, bountiful potatoes, often considered the tastiest in the United Kingdom, and a disproportionate wealth of offshore bank accounts, due to its status as an infamous tax haven.
I grew up on “The Rock,” as the locals call it, where the maximum speed limit is 40 mph and the population a smidge over 100,000. Living in Los Angeles over the last four years, I have come to realize that Jersey and LA have a surprising amount in common. They are both blessed with gorgeous, sandy beaches. They both suffer from staggering wealth inequality. And, as it turns out, they both lack decent pubs.
The pub is a revered, many-headed beast. Pubs in the U.K. vary wildly, from rural watering holes where locals have a permanent tab open and the landlord is a key part of the community, to fancy gastropubs, which are effectively restaurants masquerading in pubs’ clothing.
Both types have their pros and cons. The former is usually cozier and provides a better environment for having a few pints and a good chat with your mates, while the latter makes up for its sometimes stuffy atmosphere with superior food.
For all its fancy seafood restaurants and top-quality produce, Jersey severely lacked in the homey pub department. When I was a young boy, pub meals seemed to consist of bland chunky chips, lukewarm baked beans and greasy fried scampi.
It wasn’t until I moved to the English mainland, when I was about 11, that I discovered the wonders of a good pub.
In the last decade, the trend in the U.K. has been for the once stuffy, dark pub to be transformed into a light, modern gastropub. Gone are the crusty carpets seeped in decades of sweat and spilled beer. Virtually banished are the jars of pickled onions, swimming in their primordial ooze. They have been largely replaced with airy restaurant settings, in which the cutlery comes neatly wrapped in a linen napkin.
The Wheatsheaf, one of the local pubs I frequent near my home in Bath, England, stands perfectly astride the fine line between grungy pub and gastropub. In the bar, you’ll find dark wooden beams, low ceilings and a roaring fire in the winter. It’s the kind of homey, welcoming environment that sets great pubs apart from their bar or restaurant counterparts. The food at The Wheatsheaf is tasty and diverse, with hearty pub classics like fish and chips and a homemade burger, as well as more elegant choices, such as hot-smoked salmon Wellington and roast wood pigeon.
However, after years of being spoiled, moving to LA for college has brought me back to the old, poor pub days on Jersey. I wasn’t expecting to find bang-up pubs 5,000 miles away from my homeland, but the couple of pubs that I have visited over here have boasted more TV screens than the NSA control room and more options on the menu than any patron could possibly comprehend.
I decided to scour the LA pub scene to see if I could find a good, old-fashioned pub in a city where, much like in the U.K., soaring rent prices are threatening to sweep so many traditional local businesses under the crusty rug.
Ye Olde King’s Head
116 Santa Monica Blvd. Santa Monica, CA 90401
Ye Olde King’s Head in Santa Monica was more like a museum dedicated to pub culture and all things British than an actual pub.
The bar area was dark and gloomy – reminiscent of the pubs of yore. The place was packed with expats and soccer-mad locals, their eyes glued to an important Premier League match projected on two huge screens.
It’s traditional for English pubs to be filled with quaint knickknacks such as tankards or beer coasters, but the restaurant side of Ye Olde King’s Head looked like a Jackson Pollock painting of Britishness. One wall was laden with hunting paraphernalia, including riding boots, stirrups, curvy horns and even the heads of a couple of unfortunate deer. Another wall was covered entirely in porcelain plates.
As if the pub and restaurant weren’t “British” enough, next door is Ye Olde King’s Head Shoppe, where they sell everything from jars of Marmite to mugs with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle smiling eerily back at you.
I sat down to eat, trying to put aside the creepy feeling that I was in a huge shrine to my culture, and decided to order two quintessential pub classics: a Scotch egg for starters and the pub’s “world-famous” fish and chips as a main course. The two dishes could not be more synonymous with England unless the Queen were eating them while petting a bulldog (she’s out of corgis). I’m not the biggest Scotch egg fan at the best of times – when the yolk is crumbly, the meat is succulent and the batter is crunchy – but Ye Olde King’s Head’s Scotch egg really tested my stiff upper lip.
The batter was too thin and the egg inside was slightly green at the edges. The chef added a curry flavor to the sausage meat in an attempt to spice things up a bit, but all that did was overpower the meatiness of the sausage.
The Scotch egg was served with a small pot of gravy and a simple tomato slice, two accoutrements that seemed like afterthoughts. When trying to photograph the dish, it quickly became apparent there was no angle or change in lighting that would make the egg look appealing enough to run in a magazine.
After the starter, I feared for the fish and chips. My fears were confirmed as soon as the waitress informed me that mushy peas would be $5 extra. Fish and chips without mushy peas is like macaroni without the cheese, apple pie without the crust, a hot dog without the bun, a Twinkie without the digestive pills. It’s fair to say my world was shaken.
When the dish arrived, there was nothing worldly or famous about it. The mushy peas were watery and tasteless, the batter on the fish was too greasy and the cod inside was slightly chewy. A good fish and chips consists of soft, flaky fish covered in crunchy batter with peaks and furrows to it. What I was served fell short of the mark on each count.
On the plus side, the chips were suitably chunky, the inside was fluffy and the compulsory tartar sauce had the lemony, acid bite you’d expect.
I staggered out of Ye Olde King’s Head into the Santa Monica sunlight feeling bloated. I had been stuffed so full with a greasy, poor excuse for good pub food that I felt ready to burst.
The Cat & Fiddle Restaurant and Pub
742 N Highland Ave. Los Angeles, 90038
In the middle of a nondescript block in Hollywood, The Cat & Fiddle’s faux-Tudor exterior stands out like a sore thumb.
The dark beams painted onto a cream-colored background aren’t exactly in keeping with the drab offices and residential buildings around it; however, once you duck inside through the quaint wooden entrance, you’re greeted by a bright, airy space with olive-toned walls.
Compared to the cluttered, messy walls of Ye Olde King’s Head, The Cat & Fiddle’s decor is more minimal and tasteful. The central wall is adorned with a collection of large, ornate gold plates, separated by two duelling pistols hung at a jaunty angle. To complete the look, a beautiful old set of bellows sits proudly above the bar. Although I briefly contemplated taking them down and using them as a makeshift air conditioning system – I visited the pub on a warm 83-degree Saturday – they helped cap off an overall decorative effect that reminded me of several of the homier pubs I enjoy back in the U.K.
Wandering through the pub, I found a large patio out back, complete with gushing Italianate fountain and copious shade, but I managed to resist the temptation to stay outside and sat indoors to try and get a truer experience.
My attention turned to the menu, and my eye was immediately attracted to its house-brand dry hard cider. Somerset, the English county in which I live, is famous for its dry cider, and I was eager to test whether this LA equivalent met the standard. To my slight surprise, the pint more than exceeded expectations, as a cold, crisp freshness washed into my mouth. The cider had the required bite and the dryness that differentiated it from a sweeter hard cider, such as an Angry Orchard, that you would find in most grocery stores.
The food didn’t quite match the cider’s lofty heights. Before arriving at The Cat & Fiddle, I knew I wanted to again opt for the fish and chips to give myself a comparison point, and to make sure I wasn’t totally losing my fish-and-chip mojo after the disappointment of Ye Olde King’s Head. The fish and chips at The Cat & Fiddle came with mushy peas, as it should, but yet again, they were too watery for my liking. A friend shook her head and made a face like she was sucking a lemon when she tasted them. I’ll admit that mushy peas take some getting used to, but I have yet to find a good enough iteration of the dish to show my friends the delicious addition they should be.
The fish at The Cat & Fiddle was certainly an improvement on Ye Olde King’s Head, as this one had a peaky, crunchy batter – a perfect casing for the soft, flaky fish inside. However, the chips were a little soggy and underwhelming, meaning that the dish was a mixed experience overall.
For dessert, I decided to order one of my absolute favorites: Bakewell tart, which consists of a shortcrust pastry exterior filled with a generous layer of raspberry jam, a sponge-like layer of frangipane and a topping of chopped almonds. The tart was almost a good Bakewell, but not quite. The consistency of the frangipane was too thick and coarse, which meant the jam layer was barely visible and the flavor didn’t come through. In a picture-perfect Bakewell tart, the frangipane and raspberries are in a harmonious marriage, with neither overwhelming the other. I suspect the ground almonds, the main ingredient of frangipane, weren’t ground finely enough in this recipe, a mistake that led to a flavor divorce.
However, despite the mixed food results, I wouldn’t hesitate in coming back to The Cat & Fiddle. While I was sitting at a table, sipping hard cider with my friends, I noticed a collection of board games piled in the corner, and I could just picture returning on a weeknight and cracking out the Monopoly set. The Cat & Fiddle comes pretty close to capturing the convivial, homey atmosphere that I crave in a pub.
7617 Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90046
I thought I had seen the last of quirky old pubs with flatcap-wearing bar staff, and then I set foot inside The Pikey. I entered through a flowery front patio, and my eyes struggled to adjust to the bar’s dim lighting, an orange hue emanating from two large chandeliers. The Pikey has a Tudor watering hole vibe; it’s the kind of place Shakespeare’s Falstaff might hang out, along with all sorts of other blaggards and ruffians.
The decoration inside veered more toward Ye Olde King’s Head’s scattergun approach, with all sorts of trinkets and knickknacks. The Pikey aims for dark humor: One of the more striking pieces was a merry-go-round horse, with pole and a set of plastic deer antlers stuck on its head, mounted above a doorway. It also featured a portrait of Winston Churchill next to an iconic photo of Hugh Grant taken after he was arrested in LA alongside a sex worker for lewd conduct in a public space.
Putting the quirky, if slightly odd, vibe aside, I ordered a Welsh rarebit – an open-top grilled cheese with mustard spread on it – with a side of thrice-fried chips to get a cut of The Pikey’s jib. Both turned out to be absolutely scrumptious. The chips were among the thickest and crunchiest I have had since leaving the U.K., and the Welsh rarebit had a pleasant tang from the mustard to counterbalance the decadent ooze of the cheddar cheese on top.
However, the highlight of The Pikey’s offerings, the dish that pretty much made the entire pub odyssey worthwhile, was the sticky toffee pudding. Back home, sticky toffee pudding is probably the most common pub dessert, providing the final shove out the door you need at the end of your meal to send you home in a comatose state. The Pikey’s version did exactly that.
The date cake was moist yet springy, crucial given the slathering of divine, luxurious toffee sauce on top. Between the runny sauce and the firm sponge, it perfectly covered both ends of the dessert-texture spectrum. The ensemble was topped off with a much-needed dollop of clotted cream, which brought a freshness to the dish that could easily have been cloyingly sweet.
While The Pikey wasn’t exactly the classic, homey pub that I had set out to find, the sticky toffee pudding was such a showstopper that I can easily imagine coming back just for another taste of that sponge covered in sweet, toffee nectar.
As Shakespeare himself put it in “Richard II:” The last taste of sweets, is sweetest last. You’re not wrong Bill, you’re not wrong.