Long before West Hollywood became a safe haven for the gay community, there were few places in Los Angeles where gay people could eat and drink freely without harassment. Santa Monica Canyon was one of those places.
During the ’60s and ’70s on the small strip leading up from Pacific Coast Highway and the city’s only gay beach, you could enjoy a prime rib dinner and stiff martini at the Golden Bull restaurant, and then stumble two doors down to the S.S. Friendship for some after-dinner dancing and dalliance.
Don Cranford opened the Golden Bull in 1949 in what was then Eddie’s Restaurant and turned it into a chophouse and a Santa Monica institution loved by generations of locals and the gay community. The bar was as legendary as the $8.95 early bird prime rib special.
But as the LGBT colony moved eastward and the Curb Your Enthusiasm characters invaded the canyon, the Bull slowed down and started to show its age. The red Naugahyde booths started to fray and the food couldn’t quite compete with the surrounding trendy restaurants. First the S.S. Friendship closed down; not long after, Cranford sold the restaurant and rode off into the sunset on his motorcycle.
Santa Monica locals bemoaned the loss of yet another institution and went into wild speculation mode on what outsider would come in and take over the beloved space. Oh please, not another Italian restaurant….
Fear not, dear neighbors! On July 1, the Golden Bull officially reopens to its full splendor after a loving facelift by one of the city’s own children.
Mark Verge of On the Verge Hospitality Group, which also owns the OP Café, Margo’s, Art’s Table and Ashland Hill, has come in and revitalized the space but stayed true to the original integrity of Cranford’s vision.
The dining room has a warm, friendly and intimate atmosphere with old-school decor, preserving the history and character of the original restaurant in a refined and contemporary setting. It’s dimly lit, with dark leather booths complemented by dark red walls and wood paneling. The strong image of a handsome toro is the focus of the back wall opposite the wine bar.
The lounge area features the polished original bar as well as booths and a fireplace for guests to gather and mingle for a cocktail or wait for their table. The walls are adorned with black-and-white photography selected by Santa Monica historian Randy Young, as an ode to the history of the Santa Monica Canyon and the original restaurant.
Verge, whose Santa Monica roots go back as far as the Marquez Rancho, brought in former Jean-Georges chef Greg A. Daniels to elevate and refine the original chophouse concept. Seasoned hospitality expert Ron Knoll, whose family owned another local institution, the beloved Black Forest Inn on Wilshire, is at Verge’s right hand. Daniel Baker and Jake Hamrick have taken over the bar program to make sure the signature martinis and old-fashioneds are up to old-timer standards; they've added a few new items like the bourbon-based Brown Derby and a Paloma, made with Patron Roca Blanco tequila and fresh grapefruit juice.
Small plates include a delightfully revitalized Caesar with Little Gem lettuce, delicate shaved croutons, freshly grated Parmesan and pecorino with chili flakes. The French onion soup has been elevated to star status, made with veal broth, caramelized onions, garlic baguette and Gruyère and Emmenthal cheese. The monster shrimp cocktail features citrus-poached prawns and a tangy, house-made cocktail sauce. The hand-cut steak tartare comes in an updated version with aioli, Fresno peppers, capers, shallots, cornichons, crispy poached egg and herb salad.
The 14-ounce prime rib is better than ever, served with Yorkshire pudding, and they’ve added a melt-in-your-mouth 8-ounce flat iron to the large-plate menu. Berkshire pork chops, lamb chops, poached halibut and slow-cooked salmon round out the choices along with pastas and the Golden Bull Burger.
Sides are the same but on steroids — not your daddy’s creamed spinach with Parmesan, string beans with garlic almond butter, grilled leek vinaigrette and dill, and roasted wild mushrooms with jalapeño, onion puree and watercress — just to name a few.
With their deep roots in Santa Monica history, Verge and Knoll have respectfully restored the golden legacy and welcoming atmosphere the Bull was always famous for and yes, you can still get the early bird special during the week from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
The Golden Bull, 170 W. Channel Road, Santa Monica; (310) 230-0402, goldenbullsantamonica.com.