A 1901 fire station makes a great setting for comfort food and body builder fare

By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)

The beefy Firehouse chili burger, pork and jalapeno sausage sandwich, and garlic parmesan fries

The beefy Firehouse chili burger, pork and jalapeno sausage sandwich, and garlic parmesan fries

In most businesses it’s rare to celebrate the previous usage of a building. Restaurants are different; I’ve been to places that were formerly a light rail station, blacksmith shop, church and even a gas station that evoked the prior tenant in their decor.

The Firehouse Restaurant & Bar in Venice is an example of a place with a charismatic history that has been put to use very well. The original 1901 building is furnished with enough vintage cast-iron fire truck models to furnish a small toy museum, plus fire axes, helmets and other tools of the trade. The garage where the hook and ladder trucks once parked was a big, roomy space that needed little alteration to be a roomy restaurant and bar, while a more cozy café was developed in a smaller space fronting Main Street.

As befits a historic structure, the menu is mostly classic American fare — burgers, sandwiches, roast chicken and such — but surprises like tandoori chicken and sushi add modern touches. There is also an extensive menu section for bodybuilders, which is not too surprising given the proximity of Muscle Beach. Still, when I asked a server whether the Firehouse chili was spicy, I was surprised by the answer: he replied that it wasn’t, because bodybuilders are a big clientele here and they don’t like spicy food.

Puzzled, I contacted my friend Carmen, who is five feet tall and has the cute looks of a Disney character but works out so regularly that she can easily lift me above her head. Carmen told me that chili peppers and related spices have a boost effect on the metabolism and are often used in appetite suppressant supplements. Bodybuilders also tend to avoid salt, and after they get used to a bland low-sodium diet all spices taste more intense.

Good cooks can make something of mildly spiced items, and our appetizer was an excellent example of this. I had ordered spinach pancakes, which were made with chopped vegetables, egg whites, flour and a dash of nutmeg. These were served with sour cream and some fairly zingy salsa, and they were a hit.

We continued with sandwiches: a Firehouse chili burger (mainly because it picked up the theme of the place) and a pork and jalapeno sausage sandwich with onions and bell peppers.

As I had been warned, the Firehouse chili acquired its name not because anybody’s mouth will be aflame when eating it — it’s a mild chili with beans and ground meat — but because firemen eat at odd hours and might be called away from their meal at any time, so having a pot of chili always simmering on the stove is a good idea. As expected, the chili was a bit mild and lacked the cumin flavor that I find part of a great chili, but it had a hint of pepper and tomato in good balance.

Serving chili atop a burger always makes picking the thing up a questionable proposition, and in this case my attempt to do so was a disaster: it sprayed all over my shirt. I would have preferred this dish served with chili on the side, since I had to eat it with a knife and fork anyway. I ordered it with their garlic parmesan fries, which had a good flavor but were served lukewarm. When I brought this to our server’s attention he immediately offered to have more made or take them off the bill. The fries were stacked in a paper cone inside a metal stand, an increasingly common and visually striking serving style that unfortunately causes them to lose heat quickly. I wish restaurateurs would abandon this idea and serve them on a warm plate so they could be enjoyed longer.

The jalapeno pork sausage sandwich was tasty but unexceptional, the fried peppers and onions adding a bit of zest to the mild sausage. We had ordered that with the house-made potato salad, which we both thought was pretty good.

The Firehouse has a very decent beer and wine selection, and we enjoyed lunch with Chimay Belgian ale, Sculpin draft and an IPA I had never tried before from Fresh Squeezed. Had the day been a bit warmer I might have enjoyed sitting on their pleasant patio with another of these. All of the environments here are conducive to lounging after meals.

Lunch for two ran $70, $22 of which was beer — slightly high for what we got, but acceptable for an interesting excursion to a place of character. If you enjoy eating mild but well-made food in the company of very well-muscled people, or if you like old toys and vintage photographs of the firefighting heroes of bygone days, The Firehouse could be your new hangout.

The Firehouse 213 Rose Ave., Venice (310) 396-6810 firehousevenice.com