Just before sunset on a recent Tuesday night, two women sit drinking red wine on the patio of the new Venice Ale House on the Venice boardwalk. A man in sunglasses shuffles up on the sidewalk beside them and asks for a dollar. The women uncomfortably reach for their purses before one recognizes the man and smiles broadly.
"Oh, it's you!" she exclaims, relieved.
"Gotcha!" he says, happily walking around the patio enclosure to join the women at their table.
That's called boardwalk humor, and there's plenty of it to be had at this month-old bar and restaurant, which occupies a prime slice of real estate along one of the city's most colorful pedestrian thoroughfares.
Opened by Thomas Elliott and his wonderfully named friend and roommate Spoon Singh, VAH is attempting — successfully, so far — to achieve what has long been considered difficult: bringing quality, organic, locally sourced food and drink to the boardwalk.
"Is there some unwritten rule that food has to be crummy on the boardwalk?" asks Elliott, wearing a straw fedora hat and looking extremely fit. A documentary filmmaker by trade, he is also an avid sailor and skateboarder (as is Spoon).
He has a point. A glance south reveals a guy wearing a sign advertising 99-cent pizza, and a stroll in either direction yields an array of restaurants featuring hearty, greasy fare designed for absorbing a belly full of beer.
That sort of food is heroic in its own right, but VAH is aiming higher. Its special trick is curating a fine beer-and-wine list culled from the West Coast that is tailored to pair with its simple menu of burgers, salads and seafood, which are also West Coast-sourced.
For example, Zocker Gruner Veltliner from Edna Valley goes swimmingly with the delightful beet carpaccio — its earthy yellow beets rimmed with orange resemble thin slices of setting sun against a green sky of tangy arugula with rich goat cheese cream.
And the grass-fed beef burger on a whole-wheat bun, topped sky high with chunks of avocado, melty cheddar cheese, butter lettuce and tomato and served with a mound of flavorful garlic mashers (a clever cross between potato salad and mashed potatoes) is pitch-perfect with the Consilience Syrah from Santa Barbara.
If you're a beer person you can't go wrong, either. Spoon founded Hawaii's beloved Kona Brewing Company and opened Bar Hayama on Sawtelle.
Kona's Longboard Lager is a favorite of repeat VAH customers as are drafts from favored California breweries, including Stone, Green Flash, Ballast Point and Lost Coast. There are also New Belgium Brewing Company's Fat Tire from Colorado, Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen from Portland and IPA from Alaskan Brewing Company.
While it's Spoon's business to know where his beer comes from, Elliott takes pride in knowing where his ingredients come from. (He found himself unable to look at a plate of food without wondering about its origin after seeing the 2004 film "The Future of Food.")
"I know the guy who grows my greens at Maggie's Greens. I'm a big sustainable-food advocate," he says. "I also get our eggs from my friend Sharon at Healthy Family Farms in Ojai." He gets as much beef as he can from her as well, but lately demand has outpaced supply and he has turned to a grass-fed farm in Uruguay for supplemental orders.
Elliott is also a big advocate of the Venice community. Most of the employees live within a 10-block radius of VAH, and nearly all of them ride bikes or skateboards to work, as do Spoon and Elliott.
There are two skateboard racks at the entrance to the bar, which is decorated in what can best be described as "skateboard minimalist." Unfinished plywood edges mirror the sides of skateboards and smooth, blond wood is everywhere, including the many patio tables and chairs and the bar itself. Fish sculptures made from deconstructed skateboards adorn the walls.
Fear not, the effect is not bro-centric. It's tasteful and clean, just like the food and drink. Which is good, because the ribbon of boardwalk concrete bordered by the vast blue horizon of the Pacific is far from clean and often not tasteful. But it is marvelous.
On the same night that the above-mentioned women at VAH got punked by their friend, a carnival of activity unfurls for eager watchers as happy hour recedes into the gloaming.
Hare Krishnas dressed in bubble-gum pink saris skip by singing and beating drums; a toddler, his diaper puffed out of the back of his tiny Levis, scoots by on a mini skateboard; homeless teens light incense and lay down bed rolls; and Rastafarians pack up their merchandise into a One Love van.
Meanwhile, the Santa Monica Pier comes alive with purple neon to the north while the mountains beyond turn to paper cutout silhouettes and the servers inside VAH light candles on window ledges.
And just as the first drum circle of the night sounds its hippie mating call, a woman in a tan, hooded sweater walks by pushing a baby carriage and screaming curse words with admirable conviction.
"Oh, my God, is that really a crazy person pushing a child?" asks one of the women. "I'm gonna freak out."
But there is no baby in the carriage; just the seeds of an evening best spent watching more of the same. With a cold Longboard Lager firmly in hand, of course.
Venice Ale House
Where: 2 Rose Ave., Venice
When: Noon to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Price: Sandwiches, salads, eggs and appetizers, $6 to $14; beer and wine, $5 to $12.
Contact: (310) 314-8253; http://www.venicealehouse.com