Cole's P.E. Buffet
When you trip down out of the bright sunlight into the dim warren of Cole's, you stumble into another era, with real Tiffany lamps, sawdust on the floors, and a couple of pickle-nosed guys at the bar who look like they haven't budged from their stools since 1946. (One bartender says he's been tending bar here since before Repeal.) There are horseradish and hot mustard on the tables, darts in backrooms, and dark Spaten on tap – a sort of romantic, Chandleresque dinginess you won't find anywhere else in town. This is the land of blood, sweat and beers. As you stand in line at the buffet, tray in hand, you might think that Cole's would be a swell place to try meat loaf, or knackwurst and beans, or corned beef and cabbage, or stuffed peppers. It's not. Fortunately, Cole's also happens to serve – and claims, along with its downtown competitor, Philippe, to have invented – huge, glorious French-dip sandwiches, soft and crisp, rich and meaty, of freshly roasted turkey, meltingly delicious brisket, or darn good roast beef, pork and pastrami. 118 E. Sixth St., downtown; (213) 622-4090. Open Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-7 p.m. (bar until 11 p.m.). Lunch for two, food only, $8-$10. Full bar. Lot parking. Cash only.
John Bull English Pub
John Bull serves some of the best beer around – the usual pints of Bass and Harp and Guinness, sure, but also the hand-drawn drafts of Real Ale that never seem to make it anywhere else. Witness the wonder of brewing that is Newcastle Brown, less a beer than some dense, dark country bread miraculously drawn into a glass, tapped with a special hand pump that injects just enough air into the uncarbonated ale to produce a tickling spritz and induce a head the color and texture of thick, unpasteurized cream. Plus, the fish and chips are everything you could wish for from a Brit restaurant, sweet fillets of North Sea cod enrobed in a light beer batter and fried to a delicate crunch, served with a little pill cup of freshly made tartar sauce and a pile of decent steak fries. A half order, the “tiddler,” is just enough to take the edge off a pint of Newcastle without leaving you too heavy for darts. 958 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 441-4353. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9-$17. Beer and wine. Lot parking. AE, D, MC, V.
Although I probably wouldn't list Merida among my dozen favorite Mexican restaurants, I somehow end up here more often than I do at any of the others, for a quick shrimp cocktail and a Negra Modelo after a movie, for an early Saturday lunch with the in-laws, for a carnitas plate before a walk through the Norton Simon. Merida specializes in the tropical cooking of the Yucatan – Merida is the capital of Yucatan state – and most of the Yucatecan food is first-rate. The archetypal Yucatecan dish may be cochinita pibil: slabs of fat pork rubbed with a paste of chiles, garlic and the yellow-red spice achiote, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. A couple of bucks will get you an order of panuchos: thin fried tortillas stuffed with beans, garnished with a small table salad and a few slivers of peppery turkey meat. Poc chuc is thin slices of grilled citrus-marinated pork, rimmed with caramelized black bits and garnished with brilliant red pickled onions, all served with a fiery fresh-chile salsa. There is a nice turkey en escabeche, stewed in a peppery vinegar sauce, and good frijol con puerco, chunks of pork boiled with black beans until they look like small lumps of coal, served with a heap of the beans and a big, delicious bowl of the salty, ebony-colored bean broth. 20 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 792-7371. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$19. Beer and wine. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, D, MC, V.
The Red Lion Tavern
The Red Lion may not be the most refined restaurant in Los Angeles, but it has always been a good place for a beer and a wurst: knackwurst, bratwurst, weisswurst, bockwurst, German-style wieners, also the tasty smoked pork chops called Kassler rippchen and the jiggly pork shank called eisbein. Early in the evening, there's usually a scattering of native Germans at the bar, though lately they've been outnumbered by arty Silver Lake dudes and the kind of shaggy music-scene guys who always know where to find the best suds in any neighborhood. The Red Lion serves Bitburger on tap, but the beer to get is the relatively uncommon Spaten Weissbier, tart as limeade, refreshing with a slice of lemon on a hot summer night. The popular sausage platter is kind of spectacular-looking – a giant plate covered with bratwurst and knackwurst, cut into chunks – but oddly enough in this palace of meat, the best dish may be the fish dish called rollmops: cool, silvery slabs of marinated herring, cleanly fishy, so heavily vinegared you can choke a little on the fumes if you take too big a first bite. The herring comes with a great pile of something close to the perfect potatoes, fried crisp in bacon grease and dotted with wilted onions – just the sort of platter for which liter-size beer mugs were invented. 2366 Glendale Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 662-5337. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $16-$22. Full bar. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, D, DC, MC, V.
You work your way to the bar. The bartender honks, “Sierra Nevada!” and slides you one frothing mug of beer, then another. The Shack is an archetypal beach hamburger dive, a crowded joint in the heart of Playa del Rey with sister restaurants on Oahu and in Santa Monica. The basic unit of exchange here is something called the Shack Burger, a quarter-pound of ground meat and a Louisiana sausage crammed together in a bun. The sausage is ruddy, spicy, grilled crisp; the hamburger patty is charred in a way that you may associate with backyard barbecues, totally carbonized but oddly appealing in its acrid blackness. There is lettuce, mustard, grilled onion on request, all the usual stuff, and a cold bun that tastes right out of the package. The Shack Burger seems repellent on the surface – and will seem repellent an hour after you eat one – but at the time, it is irresistible, all grease and smoke and snap: dude food without peer. 185 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey; (310) 823-6222. Food served daily 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; bar open till 1 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $8-$14. Full bar. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, D, MC, V.