In L.A., where high-paid architects and interior designers seem as essential to a new restaurant's success as the choice of chef, walking into a well-worn local haunt like Lares in Santa Monica has that "welcome home" appeal you can't buy. It's the sort of place where the paint and woodwork take on the cracks and chips of age gracefully, developing a character that never needs a new coat of paint. It's also the sort of place people hit when they have pork carnitas and carne adobada cravings, not when they're looking to simply grab a drink.
In part, that's because the margaritas are proudly made with a mix -- ask for a fresh lime juice version and they'll make it for you -- and the beer list is old-school ("imported" here means Modelo). But mainly as the tiny six-stool bar area just inches from the front door is exceptionally dark by day, and come supper hour, an uncomfortably cozy way to get to know the dozen people lined up behind you for a table. You sidle up to this bar for one reason only: To have a beer at the altar.
"It was a gift to the owner from someone in Santa Monica after he opened the restaurant," said the young bartender serving our beer. "It's really old, from Hawaii; Someone shipped it over for him." But the ornate carved wood altar (Cherubs! Corinthian columns!) is so firmly plastered to the wall, it looks more like a piece original to the restaurant, which opened in 1968, not a design piece installed later.
"No, no, the owner built the entire restaurant around it," clarifies Jose Santilla, a server at Lares for 21 years who also happens to be one of the most genuinely charming waiters we've met in a long time. "It's from Hawaii."
As everyone is (finally) in agreement about that Hawaii birthplace issue, we're going with Santilla on the history side. There's something about those plaster walls that does feel like the restaurant was built around an altar: The oil painting of a saint across the room, the (electric) candelabra along the walls, the gold scrolls hand-painted around the heavy wood doorways.
In a city speckled with churches and synagogues on every corner, where Beer Church is still a new revelation, an altar filled with tequila and inexpensive wine for nearly 45 years is our kind of mystical experience.
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