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Ode to St. George : The Robin Hood pub and restaurant plans to mark England's patron saint's day with a special dinner tonight.

April 23, 1993|RAY BENNETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Bennett is a Van Nuys writer.

You don't have to be Irish to know about St. Patrick's Day. "The funny thing is,"said Michael Williams, "you ask a lot of Brits when St. George's Day is and they don't know."

Michael and Lorraine Williams run the Robin Hood British Pub and Restaurant in Van Nuys, and they claim that theirs was the first San Fernando Valley establishment to mark England's patron saint's day, April 23. That was nine years ago. The tradition continues tonight with an appropriate feast. About half a million Britons live in Southern California, but things specifically British tend to take place with typical understatement.

"I think it's the feeling that the Scots are a minority, the Irish are a minority and the Welsh are a minority, and when you celebrate things particularly English, you tend to get a bit of resentment," said Denis Storer, executive director of the British-American Chamber of Commerce.

"We thought, well, everyone celebrates St. Paddy's Day, why not St. George?" Lorraine Williams said. "Some other places have done it and then stopped. We've kept going."

The English weren't always ambivalent about St. George. Historians record that in the Middle Ages, Englishmen celebrated their patron saint with mumming plays--nominally silent pageants--in which village amateurs would declaim rhyming couplets about their hero and then enact battle scenes between Turkish swordsmen, which would often degenerate into riots.

Legend claims that St. George slew a dragon to save a king's daughter. Little is known about him except that he was a truculent, albeit courageous, Roman soldier whose carping about imperial persecution cost him his head in the year 303 AD. The legend apparently derives from an altercation he once had with a large beast outside a village in Libya.

That was enough, however, to impress England's King Richard I (the Lion-Hearted), who adopted St. George while he was mucking about with other people's religion in the Holy Land during the Middle Ages. According to Sir Winston Churchill, King Richard only spent a few months in England during his 10-year reign, but his championing St. George was enough to inspire Shakespeare to invoke his name in the rave speeches of "Henry V."

That, during a later period of strife--World War II--led Churchill to encourage Sir Laurence Olivier to make a film of "Henry V" so that in flea-pits across the nation, he could exhort his exhausted countrymen to "Cry 'God for Harry, England and St. George!' "

Robin Hood, of course, is another hero of tenuous provenance, but his name said England to Michael and Lorraine Williams when they christened their pub 10 years ago. Hanging above the bar is the red cross on white background that is the flag of St. George, and on one of the shelves is a bust of Churchill next to that of Shakespeare, whose birthday just happens to fall on April 23, St. George's Day.

The establishment was just a beer bar with a pool table when the Williamses purchased it in 1983. Both from London, Michael and Lorraine met in Santa Monica--at an English pub, Ye Olde King's Head--on St. Valentine's Day 15 years ago. They married a year later.

Drawing on his previous London hotel experience and her business knowledge from running a model agency in Bournemouth on England's south coast, they entered the restaurant business.

"Everyone thought we'd lost our senses, a couple of English people invading the Valley," Lorraine said. "At first, we were just interested in getting customers and we were surprised at just how many English people found us."

Now the Robin Hood boasts a mixed clientele of many nationalities but with the distinct feel of an English pub. Bartenders Jerry K., as he likes to be known, and Guy Botham dispense an assortment of British beers and cocktails with such colorful names as Maid Marian's Passion, Robin's Arrow and the Sheriff's Slow Burn.

Traditional English tea, complete with scones, strawberry jam and Devonshire cream, is served each afternoon. And after happy hour, there are five dinner specials from Chef Andres, ranging from swordfish to beef Wellington to Sherwood chicken, priced from $6.95 to $12.95. This, on top of a full menu of traditional British pub food: fish and chips, bangers and mash, shepherd's pie, and steak and kidney pie.

On Sundays, the special rotates from roast chicken and turkey to beef, pork and lamb, with all the trimmings. You also can take a bit of England home with you next door at the Friar Tuck Shoppe, which sells imported British foods, chocolates and gifts.

Where and When Location: Robin Hood British Pub and Restaurant, 13640 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys. What: St. George's Day Feast. Appetizer: Salmon pate served in a puff pastry shell with a cream cucumber sauce. Entree: English roast served on parsnips, carrots and pearl onions, with Cabernet herb gravy, Yorkshire pudding, roast new potatoes, Brussels sprouts. Dessert: Treacle pudding and custard. Hours: Dinner 6 to 11 tonight. Price: $13.95. Full bar. Valet parking. Visa, MasterCard, American Express. Call: (818) 994-6045.

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