Let's face it, Encino isn't exactly the epicenter of cool. Stuck pretty much midway between Sherman Oaks' Restaurant Row (where craft cocktail and craft beer abound) and the eager culinary destination of Woodland Hills (where buzzy restaurants like Local Peasant and Salt and Pepper are drawing eaters west), the tony neighborhood is more well known for its role in that 80s Brendan Fraser movie than as a nightlife hotspot.
In fact, Encino was until last Friday so devoid of places to grab a good beer along with a bite to eat, that the locals were forced to convene at the bar at the Ventura Boulevard Chili's. Yes, that's as in "I want my baby back" Chili's.
Since opening Sweeney's Ale House right after the new year, co-owner and drinks-program mastermind (and namesake) Ryan Sweeney says he's had numerous customers come in and tell him they're so thankful to not have their local joint be a corporate chain anymore.
"One guy said he'd gotten so sick of the Chili's that he'd taken to drinking at Buca di Beppos and Tony Romas," Sweeney says. "This was a neighborhood in need."
Underneath it all, Sweeney's is an Irish bar, but it has a distinctly New England-ish nautical theme thrown in (think: cross-stitched fishermen and old weathered oars on the walls). Like all the other Goat Group bars — from Surly Goat to Blind Donkey to newly opened The Woodman in Sherman Oaks — the decor is there, but not over the top, and, though massive at nearly 5000 square feet, the space is minimal yet inviting (two shuffleboard tables and a karaoke stage helps too).
Allowing each of his places to be reflective of the neighborhood, Sweeney's latest venture is already the kind of place where the music is more likely to be Modest Mouse than Top 40 and the flat screens are more likely to be screening Crocodile Dundee than the football game.
The food program is a little scatterbrained, with a long selection of American-style small plates that are really just clever takes on pub food. Instead of fried macaroni-and-cheese balls, there are fried elote balls, topped with parmesan and served with a mayo dipping sauce, so as to evoke the flavors of street-served corn cobs. And instead of your regular Irish nachos, Sweeney's personal favorite foodstuff is the basket of thick-cut potato chips, which come topped with enough cheese, bacon and chives to pair with every beer.
But the highlight of Sweeney's Ale House, as with every other project Sweeney himself touches, is the craft beer selection.
"We haven't done a craft beer place since Surly Goat," says Sweeney. "So I was more than excited to plan this program."
Selfishly, perhaps, Sweeney fills the ale house's 28 taps of craft beer with personal selections from both local and hard-to-find California breweries. He drove to San Diego for kegs from IPA kings Societe Brewing and trekked up to the Bay Area to bring back kegs from award-winning Faction Brewing. They sit on the current taplist alongside recent releases from Beachwood, Highland Park Brewery, Eagle Rock Brewery and Ladyface.
Though beer is the focus, Sweeney's is still an Irish bar, prepared with whiskey-filled alternatives ("If you're going to drink spirits here, you should be drinking Irish whiskey," he says). On tap are two pre-mixed cocktails, each utilizing a famous Irish whiskey. Tullamore Dew is the base for the Dublin Donkey, a Moscow Mule made with brown liquor instead, and the Port of Dublin is a take on a Manhattan, made instead with rum-cask-aged Teeling Irish whiskey and Grand Marnier.
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Sweeney's Ale House is the last Goat Group project in the San Fernando Valley, but it's not the end of the hospitality empire, which over the last eight years (and mostly in the last two) has brought neighborhood bars to everywhere from Highland Park to Long Beach to West Hollywood. A final (for now) bar called Der Wolfskopf, will open in a month or so in Old Town Pasadena. The German beer-hall concept will serve nothing but easy-drinking session beers, from both here and Germany, alongside German-inspired pub food.
Sweeney's Ale House, 17337 Ventura Blvd, Ste 100A; Encino. Hours: 4 p.m. - 2 a.m. M-F