With fermented cocktails, live music and a killer brunch menu, Middlebar is helping a neighborhood find its center
By Richard Foss
My first question about Middlebar was “The middle of what?” It’s all by itself at the quiet north end of Market Street in Inglewood, near the intersection of Florence and LaBrea, without another watering hole in sight.
Talk with owners Corrie Scully and Renie Schoenkerman and you’ll discover that the name has everything to do with the restaurant’s unusual origins. They used to host parties in this space while running another business, and … well, let’s let Corrie tell it:
“We moved into this space in 2014 and used it as a kitchen to produce our farm-fresh cocktail mixers, which we sold mainly at farmer’s markets. What is now the restaurant was the middle of our apartment, and we had a little speakeasy kind of bar where we entertained our friends. We used to have another bar at the front of the space, but somehow everybody liked to hang out at the one in the middle, so when we opened to the public we just called it Middlebar.”
The transition from a combination living space and cocktail mix factory to a café with live jazz wasn’t something they planned. Corrie and Renie were doing well selling their mixes at farmers markets when they heard that city officials wanted to talk to them. A message like that usually strikes fear into the heart of small business owners, but it turned out to be a surprising request.
“The city of Inglewood wants to bring life to this end of Market Street, and the mayor had a vision of how to revitalize it. He wants to do here what they did in Santa Monica — make it a promenade — and they were excited to have a place that was all about gathering and relaxing. They suggested we ought to open to the public. We thought, OK, what would that be like?”
What it’s like is a neat, homey place that crosses country parlor with jazz club. A small stage sits in one corner with a communal table across from it, with private tables near the front windows. There are more tables outside, where you don’t have to worry about noise because cars pass by only rarely. The only traffic seems to be people coming to Middlebar, which makes Mayor James Butts’ support feel prescient.
The menu straddles Southern Californian and Louisiana, a combination that suits the upbringing of the partners — Renie grew up in the area, and Corrie is from New Orleans. You’ll find a coffee-crusted top sirloin and Moroccan tagine-style salmon, but also a po-boy sandwich as well as shrimp Rockefeller. Though many Inglewood residents have ties to the South, the steak and the salmon are among the best-selling items.
I tried two Southern items on my first visit: deviled eggs topped with fried oysters, and fried green tomatoes topped with maque choux (Creole vegetable mix) with a side of remoulade sauce. Fried green tomatoes are a seasonal item, but a must-have when offered. The remoulade was spicy but not aggressively hot; a perfect companion to the vegetables. The deviled eggs had a mild kick of spice too, and the contrast of cool eggs topped by freshly fried oyster was a delight.
On a return visit for brunch we started with a croissant from Frog’s bakery, a local operation that only sells at farmers markets, followed by a pair of innovative breakfast items.
Middlebar’s pan-crepe is made with ricotta cheese so that it has a crisp, caramelized exterior and a delicate, spongy interior. It came filled with cream cheese and topped with powdered sugar and fresh berry compote, and plated with an egg and bacon was a delightful start to the day. Diners can choose pork or beef bacon, and if you haven’t tried beef bacon you should consider it — while it is a bit more fatty, the smoky flavor is delicious.
Pulled-pork Benedict tops the classic poached eggs on toast with house-made barbecue sauce. I liked the crepe slightly more than the benedict, but that’s because I’m a traditionalist who likes hollandaise but is too lazy to make it. Their version is still an enjoyable open-face sandwich of eggs and tender pork topped with barbecue sauce and served with coleslaw.
Mention should also be made of the cocktails, and the products that got Middlebar started in the first place. The restaurant operates under a beer and wine license, so instead of liquors Corrie and Renie use a variety of fermented alcohols flavored to mimic traditional gins, rums or whiskies. It’s a remarkably effective tactic, and even worked with classics like an old-fashioned. Renie says that making low-alcohol drinks has pushed them to be more creative, and now they wouldn’t particularly want to offer high-alcohol drinks even if they could.
“We’re pushing our beer-and-wine license as far as it can go,” she says, “so we make our drinks using vermouths and other items that are not classified as liquor. We amplify the flavors with bitters, so there are some tweaks, but we treat the classics with respect. I think the low alcohol content is great — you can hang around and have social drinks without being smashed. It really goes to our mission of gathering and having fun rather than being wasted. I think that these fermented spirits are going to take off, and a lot of places that only have beer-and-wine licenses are going to start using them.”
They work exceptionally well in Middlebar’s Bloody Mary, which won a cocktail competition when pitted against standard versions. The drinks may be mild, but along with the good food and live music, they’re a potent attractor to the area.
“We hear from people all the time saying thanks for doing this here, so I don’t have to go to the Westside or Culver City. They like being able to enjoy this here, in Inglewood,” says Corrie. “When the door is open and there’s music on the street, it changes the energy of the whole neighborhood.”
Middlebar 129 N. Market St., Inglewood(323) 454-7577middlebar.com