By Richard Foss
Shopping mall developers spend a lot of time choosing their anchor tenant – a large business that will set the tone for the whole project. If the first thing that is announced is a large jewelry store or a high fashion clothier, it is believed that other upscale businesses will follow. If that big lease is to a Wal-Mart or the 99 Cent Store discount outlet, the whole development could become less desirable. Either way, the small stores wait to see who the anchor tenant is before making a commitment.
Hal’s Bar & Grill in Venice might be regarded as the anchor tenant for the Abbot Kinney Boulevard neighborhood, the place that set the tone for a rundown neighborhood to go upscale and artsy. When the former sandwich shop was reinvented into a stylish grill with live entertainment 25 years ago, it caused the cultural shift that property developers dream of. Hal’s hasn’t changed much since, which might be a cause for concern: fashions change in both retail and restaurants, and one might wonder if the magic could wear off.
When I went for lunch, the bright spacious restaurant was half full – not bad for a Wednesday just after opening. The menu followed the pattern that seems to have been consistent since opening day – American favorites done very competently, plus some dishes that follow current trends at a respectful distance. As far as I can tell, Hal’s has never been the place for outrageous or bizarre ideas; the art on the walls is more avant-garde than the food on the plates.
On one visit I tried a roasted duck salad while my companion had a turkey burger. The salad used tatsoi – a leafy green related to mustard and broccoli – rather than lettuce; the slight bitterness of the leaves was offset by the mango slices, snap peas and sweet grated carrot, with the flavors of peanuts and duck adding interest and body. It was served with an apricot dressing that I requested on the side, fearing it would be too sweet. It had a mild flavor and some spice to balance the fruity flavors, so it didn’t overpower the mix.
I continued with a turkey burger, not one of my usual favorite items because I usually find ground turkey dry unless mixed with other meats. My companion insisted this one would change my mind, and lots of people agree with him – the “Hal’s Turkey Burger” Facebook page has 2,071 “likes” as of this writing, and an active online social life for a lump of protein between slices of bread. I will admit that this is as stellar as turkey gets – not just that the patty was moist and flavorful, but the chipotle tartar sauce, arugula, and red onion add so much to it that it is a joy to eat. It is served with a decent Caesar salad or fries, and is a good-sized lunch or dinner for 13 bucks.
On a second visit I sampled an item that has been on the menu since the early days – black bean and roasted tomatillo soup. In a review from 1988, the Los Angeles Times author complained that this was too bland, and the recipe evidently hasn’t changed; it was curiously flat, like it had been under-salted, and the spices were a whisper. My vegetarian companion had ordered it hoping for some Caribbean spice and zip, but was disappointed – salt and pepper helped, but not enough.
He continued with seared tofu over brown rice and black beans with zucchini, broccoli, carrots, and sunflower seeds, which were topped with a mild tomato sauce. This was considerably better than the soup, but it could have used a dash of the chipotle sauce that had adorned my burger. Obviously some patrons here enjoy this dish subtle, centering on the vegetable flavors, but it would be nice to have the option of a mild or spicy sauce.
This time I had a regular burger just to see how it compared with the turkey version, and my prejudices were reaffirmed – it had the umami and slight char that make it an American favorite. The fries that came with it also hit the spot – they were very fresh-tasting and crisp, exactly the way I like them.
On other visits I have tried a farro salad that was so good that I have attempted to replicate it at home, and their excellent grilled chicken in pomegranate masala, which showed that this kitchen can use bold spices with subtlety. These affirm that Hal’s still has all the virtues that made it a hit in the first place.
The prices on everything here are surprisingly moderate and the portions are substantial, which has to help keep this place popular. The neighborhood has changed, which is good, but Hal’s hasn’t, which is even better.
Hal’s Bar & Grill is at 1349 Abbot Kinney Blvd. in Venice. Open weekdays 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. – 11 p.m. Street parking only, wheelchair access good, children welcome, full bar, corkage $15. Menu at halsbarandgrill.com. 310-396-3105. §