Freddy Smalls is neither the name of a character in a Leisure Suit Larry game nor the name of a guy who would have been part of Frank Sinatra's original crew if only the movie was called Ocean's Twelve. It is, rather, the great name of a bar and kitchen on the stretch of Pico you usually roll through on your way to and from the 405. Indeed, unless your destination is the San Francisco Saloon or one of the local gentlemen's clubs, this area is fairly empty after the crush of rush hour, with only the streetlamps left standing to cast their pale yellow shadows on the concrete. It nonetheless is a perfect location for a place like Freddy Smalls: If, as chef Ben Ford once told us, “Gastropubs are by definition sort of anti-restaurants,” then Freddy Smalls might be the anti-gastropub, or its near antonym. That the best item here might be the fried Brussels sprouts, and not, say, a burger of $14 proportions, is likely all you need to define this neighborhood bar.
Every neighborhood needs a great bar as much as it needs a great coffee shop, an evening third space for those times when you want to go where everybody knows your name. Finding the Cheers to your Central Perk, though, isn't easy: You're usually looking for a place that welcomes you as you are, so the hassle of going out is a better alternative than the convenience of staying in. You probably want to eat and drink with a specific crowd (locals, with the occasional tourist from the other side of town), and be cared for by bartenders who serve the drink you need when you need it (whiskey, neat, Mondays; beer, cold, Fridays). And, while we're dreaming, it would be nice if the bar offers food that actually is quite good, if not quite great. Maybe we're asking too much, but if Freddy Smalls can do it, surely others can.
A board of famous Freds greets you as you enter Freddy Smalls; likely you'll recognize most of them. There's Savage, MacMurray and Krueger, natch, because there's nothing quite like a reminder of your childhood nightmares right before walking into a dimly lit bar. But a sense of humor is why everyone loved Sam Malone, right? The Freds of fame instantly make Freddy Smalls feel at once familiar and exclusive, even if — or especially if — it's your first time here. It's barely a few months old, but the small space, with its muted subway tiles, small tables and booths and stained glass, already feels as broken in as your favorite sneakers. Chucks, probably, given the crowd.
Check marks, then, for comfort and atmosphere. Another one now, for the drinks. You can have that whiskey to end a horrific Monday, or maybe a decent cocktail, which, like the Stumbling Cowboy with Old Overholt Rye, sarsaparilla and candied ginger, tend to veer toward the sweet side. For your Friday night, a pint of craft beer, because if you wanted a PBR, you would instead be watching the game across the street at the San Francisco Saloon.
It's about here that you might wander into the food section of the menu. Look as you may, there is no burger; liberated from that pub standard, then, you can now reconsider everything properly in turn. There are indulgent comfort plates, like the Reuben's Gluttony with bone marrow and “Yorkie” pudding, or the Flash-Grilled Steak Tartare topped with a smoked egg yolk. And while excellent options, most of these meaty dishes aren't the most interesting ones on the menu, even for the particularly carnivorous. No, the interest lies principally in the vegetable plates, which channels the ethos of seasonability into bar food fare.
The mushroom stew, for example, with spring broccoli and green garlic, is savory and hearty; the fried Brussels sprouts, tossed with the bite of goat cheese and glazed in apple cider, are enormously addictive. And unlikely as it may be, the best salads in the neighborhood might very well be found here at the neighborhood bar. Try, for instance, the roasted beets and blood orange salad, or even the simple Maggie's Farms Greens, which confidently trusts the strength of the ingredients to tie it all together.
Mister Rogers — that's a Fred, maybe one of the best ones — opened his show with “Won't you be my neighbor?” This is the same question we'd like to ask Freddy Smalls, as if it could answer by effortlessly transplanting itself elsewhere in town. For the West L.A. crowds that can claim Freddy Smalls as their neighbor and pack the joint even on schoolnights, their question is perhaps less kindly polite and more lovingly hostile: What the hell took you so long to move in?
Check out Anne Fishbein's spectacular photo gallery of Freddy Smalls.