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Bar Is King of the Hill for Expatriate Brits

November 08, 1986|PATRICK MOTT

There are few situations more culturally disorienting than standing in a bar and listening to the World Series being discussed in robust Yorkshire accents.

Add to that the fact that this discussion is taking place almost within hearing of Pacific Ocean swells, and it's enough to make you want to sit down, order another pint of Watney's and ask someone where on earth you are.

Actually, you're standing on the well-trodden floor at 116 Santa Monica Blvd. in Santa Monica--in Ye Olde King's Head, to be exact.

The King's Head, says manager Bill Lowrie, is Santa Monica's answer to Paris' Cafe de la Paix: Wait long enough and almost every Britisher who lives in or passes through Southern California will show up there.

"It's a social gathering place for them," said Lowrie. "It's like a living room, basically."

Clearinghouse for News

Which is a succinct description of a pub--a real pub. And like pubs in Britain, it is at once a bar, restaurant, darts arena, conversational forum, local hangout and clearinghouse for news from the U.K.

The clientele is by no means exclusively British but seven days a week, at lunchtime and especially in the evening, the majority of the voices in the place don't rise in a Los Angeles nasal twang but in the ripe tones of Cornwall and Wales, of Scotland and Hertfordshire and Liverpool. It's that way by design.

Nearly 13 years ago, Philip Elwell, an expatriate Briton, decided he was sick of doing his drinking in "dark holes in the wall." He liked to down his beer in daylight and longed for the unique comfort, sociability and bright atmosphere of the pubs he knew in his native Birmingham.

He bought the building--at the time a more conventional bar--filled it with a plethora of British knickknacks, installed wood beams, cozy tables, taps for British beer--and large windows.

A 'Private Bar'

Since then, he has acquired the adjacent two properties--a Chinese and a German restaurant--and enlarged the pub to include a restaurant and a second, smaller bar--a "private bar" of the sort often appended to British pubs for those drinkers who want less hustle and bustle with their pints.

The restaurant runs heavily to typically British fare: shepherd's pie, plowman's lunches, Lancashire lamb pie, bangers and mash and fish and chips, among others. The most popular dish, said Lowrie, is the Icelandic cod, which is also used in the fish and chips.

"In our slowest month," he said, "we'll sell four tons of that cod."

The King's Head offers British and American beers on tap, as well as mixed drinks and a selection of imported beers in bottles. Many of the Britons, said Lowrie, favor the American brew.

Many celebrities, both British and American, have lifted a pint there. The walls are covered with pictures of Michael Caine, Dolly Parton, members of the Rolling Stones and Supertramp, John Candy, Larry Hagman, Glenn Ford and Cary Grant (who, said Lowrie, occasionally stops by for lunch). A visit by Ronald Reagan during the years following his California governorship also was photographed, but the future President neither ate nor drank in the pub.

"There was no bathroom in the Chinese restaurant next door, so he came in here to use ours," Lowrie explained. (Most regulars, however, make full use of the amenities.)

'The Closest Thing'

"It's the closest thing I've found to the atmosphere of an English pub," said Lynne Grandvoinet, a native of Hastings, Sussex, who has been coming to the King's Head for five years. "I hear colloquialisms in here I haven't heard for years."

"The place itself is a sort of counterpart to a bar in London where Americans go," said Martin Rigby, formerly of Barnoldswick, Yorkshire, and now a waiter living in Santa Monica. "It's where we come to touch base.

"But," he added, grinning and swirling a Budweiser, "the beer's too cold."

Ye Olde King's Head, 116 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (213) 451-1402.

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