Seal Beach, California
Here’s the kind of place I wish my neighborhood had: cozy, casual, unpretentious. Great food and amazing cocktails. A fun spot to hang out with friends, or to meet new ones. A Mom & Pop operation, run by people who care. I call it my “local” even though it’s an hour away from where I live. Give me a place like this and I’ll gladly make the commute versus wasting time at the local mediocre-to-shitty chain restaurant. 320 Main sits near the beginning of Seal Beach’s Main Street, a lazy window-shopping stroll down to the Seal Beach Pier. It’s about a half-hour from Downtown Los Angeles, just south of Long Beach, just north of Huntington Beach.
Proprietor Jason Schiffer is the man behind 320 Main, heading the food and drink program. Nothing crosses the bar or is brought to your table without his stamp of approval (his care doesn’t stop at the doorstep; he’s also on the Board of Directors for the United States Bartenders’ Guild Los Angeles, and co-founded the Orange County Bartender’s Cabinet social group). Wife Rebecca Schiffer handles special events and happily bustles around, making sure everyone is being taken care of. Chef James Wilschke and his crew crank out delicious dishes while bartenders Dave Castillo and Shaun Cole mix some of the best cocktails I’ve ever had at the restaurant’s centerpiece bar. Come on Sunday and you’ll catch Matt “RumDood” Robold serving up tiki classics and new twists.
Cocktails here are a mix of the classics done to perfection and a rotating array of new creations. Drinks like the Old Fashioned and Gimlet (with a housemade lime cordial, even – you won’t find a bottle of that awful Rose’s Lime Juice here) share the spotlight with Bumbo (a Caribbean-inspired tiki-style drink with rum, lime, and allspice) and the Hu Hu Hala-Kahiki (jalapeño-infused tequila, mezcal, lime, and a housemade pineapple shrub). The local patrons in Seal Beach love the Moscow Mule (yes, with fresh, spicy, housemade ginger beer). Food and drink are evocative for Schiffer – he created the Michigander (applejack, Cynar, honey, and lemon) when feeling homesick for his native Michigan in the fall.
A Midwestern-comfort-food-with-an-angle perspective fills out the lunch and dinner menus: a meatloaf burger with Sriracha glaze, “Quack & Cheese” (macaroni and cheese and smoked duck), New York strip steak with beet and potato “red flannel” hash. The so-carnally-stupid-it’s-awesome Bone Luge is featured with a custom “Cool Runnings” shot (Smith & Cross rum, Becherovka, and Oloroso sherry). Come for brunch on the weekends and treat yourself to French Toast and Chicken-Fried Chicken – with a Ramos Gin Fizz, of course. Day drinking is never frowned upon in a sleepy working-class town like Seal Beach.
My impression is that the locals here like to have a good time and are, one-by-one, becoming converted to The Word of The Craft Cocktail. Example: there’s an “Antique Lemon Drop” on the menu. The word “Antique” is small, “Lemon Drop” is big. People glance at that and order it, not expecting what they’re about to get: malty, funky genever instead of vodka. I asked Schiffer how many of those get sent back – he said, “none.” Just like that, one more person ventures beyond vodka into a strange new world – but cocktail evangelism, orthodoxy, and snottiness are nowhere to be found here. They understand the key is service. If a customer wants a simple Vodka Soda highball, they’ll get it without mumbled condescension. Now: if there’s an opportunity to have a conversation with a curious person about broadening their horizons, they’ll happily suggest just the right thing. I’ve seen it happen there time and again – that wide-eyed lightbulb-going-on look people get when they feel their mind expanding.
320 Main is what happens when people give a shit about what they do.
Tuesday – Thursday 11:30 am – 10:00 pm
Friday & Saturday 11:30 am – 11:00 pm
Sunday 11:30 am – 9:30 pm
A good number of the twenty-five drinks in “Home Bar Basics (and Not-So-Basics)“ call for bitters of one kind or another. These potent, concentrated formulas emerged in the late 18th century as cure-all medicines, hangover fixes, and aphrodisiacs. It was only a matter of time before they were being added to spirits like whiskey, rum, genever, and brandy – creating the original “cocktail.” Of the hundreds available as the 19th century wound down, only two survived the 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act, then Prohibition: Angostura & Peychaud’s.
For many people new to the world of classic cocktails, bitters are one of those “what the hell is this stuff” ingredients they may be inclined to leave out – and that’s a bad idea. Maybe they’re turned off by the name, thinking they’ll be distasteful? But bitters aren’t just (or always) bitter: Stephan Berg of The Bitter Truth told me bitters are “like a spice rack for your bar.” A few short years ago, Angostura bitters were just about all one could easily find. If you were very lucky, maybe Peychaud’s bitters and orange bitters. But that’s about it. Sort of like trying to cook a gourmet meal with only salt and pepper as your accents: no basil, no cilantro, no mint, no sage… thankfully, that’s changed. We’re now faced with hundreds of bitters – from the classic to the weird: Jerry Thomas’ original recipe, Mexican Chocolate-Chili, Celery, and beyond. This confusing array may just be a passing trend, though: Berg believes “there are just a handful of bitters that will stand the test of time, once the craze is over.”
But in the meantime, bitters are being used as springboards for experimentation. Louis Anderman over at Miracle Mile Bitters says, “They’re like The Dude’s rug – they really tie the room together. Just as with seasonings in food, sometimes you want those flavors to come to the forefront, other times you want them to take a more supporting role, binding and enhancing the other ingredients.” Pro bartenders will make multiple versions of a new cocktail, trying out different bitters to enhance or contrast the flavors in the glass. Or they’ll start with the bitters – tasting a few drops neat or diluted in water, and get inspired to pair flavors around the bitters – often employing dozens of options at their bars.
Exploring bitters is affordable and practical: bottles will last, unrefrigerated, for decades. Pick up a bottle of whatever grabs your interest and try a few drops dashed onto the back of your hand. Think about what spirits might go well with their flavor, then consider where the balance will come from – sweet, tart, or otherwise. Angostura tastes like cinnamon and holiday spices, Peychaud’s tastes like cherry and floral vanilla – but both are far more complex than just that. For the basics, it’s a must to have the big three on hand: Angostura, Peychaud’s, and Regan’s Orange Bitters #6. For the not-so-basics, it can be fun to explore bitters one bottle at a time: try Miracle Mile Bergamot Bitters in a Martini, The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters in a Martinez, or Fee Brothers Celery Bitters in a Bloody Mary. Once you start thinking about these accents and their role in a cocktail, you’ll find other non-traditional elements can work like bitters. Recently Java Juice, maker of USDA organic coffee extract marketed to backpackers, hit upon the idea of using a few drops of their potent elixir as a cocktail accent – an idea I was all too happy to jump on with my “Little Achiever” cocktail. If you’re interested in learning more about the world of bitters, their history, and their application, check out Brad Thomas Parsons’ book “Bitters” – a great read.
The Bitter Truth products are available online at DrinkUpNY, at Cask, and in your local liquor store (if you’re lucky enough to have a good one)
Miracle Mile Bitters are available at retail (and online, where linked) at Bar Keeper in Silverlake, at K&L Wines in Hollywood & San Fernando, at The Wine House in West LA, at The Meadow in Portland, OR and New York City, NY, and at Cask in San Francisco.
Java Juice is available online at Java Juice.
Bar-Tender’s Guide (or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion)
Recipes for Mixed Drinks
The Savoy Cocktail Book
Trader Vic’s Book of Food & Drink
Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts
Editors of Esquire
Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century
Paul Harrington & Laura Moorhead
The Craft of the Cocktail
The Joy of Mixology
Cosmopolitan: A Bartender’s Life
Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide
And a Bottle of Rum
Beachbum Berry Remixed
Jeff “Beachbum” Berry
Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl
The PDT Cocktail Book
The American Cocktail
Editors of Imbibe