By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
After 23 years, San Pedro’s favorite pub is an institution.
Walk inside, the lights are dim and the din of conversation waxes and wanes depending on how close it is to the weekend. On any night of the week, ask the bartender what’s new on the top shelf and you will generally get a good primer on what’s good and why. If you’re not familiar with Northern European cuisine, the waitstaff can educate you and you won’t feel silly for asking. Service at The Whale & Ale comes from a place of expertise, which is another way of saying it comes from restaurateur Andrew Silber.
“The main thing … is customer service,” he explained with characteristic simplicity.
“When I look at the restaurants I go to, almost universally the food is pretty good or excellent,” he said. “Not many restaurants survive if the food isn’t any good. What sets them apart is how you’re treated when you get there. And you remember vividly places that give you exceptional service.”
Andrew, well-traveled, is fluent in three languages and knowledgeable about fine dining and hospitality. It’s a safe bet that if there’s a culinary adventure to be had, he would know where to find it. For all the diversity in Southern California dining, Northern European cuisine is a rarity amid the endless variations of Asian and Latin American cuisines. Educating the local palate, without turning off diners, is a challenge.
“Most people, even if they haven’t traveled to Northern Europe, they all know what fish and chips are,” Andrew explained. “A lot of them know what shepherd’s pie is or bangers and mash because they’ve read Sherlock Holmes or seen it in on TV or something. They at least have a vague idea of it. And those that don’t, ask us.”
However, Andrew noted that another, albeit (in his words) “minor” challenge, is people’s perception of a pub.
“With a pub, there’s all sorts of types,” he said. “It could be a bar with five stools and that’s it. There are some pubs that have three banquet rooms and a dining suite. For people who haven’t visited England or toured around England, some may have a misconception of what a pub is. And the risk then is that they show up and they become disappointed.”
Andrew recalled the old pub, Tommy’s Yacht Club, where one of the main attractions was an oscillating liquor cabinet behind the bar.
“When we first opened, I think people in the area thought we were going to be like Tommy’s Yacht Club. It had long bar with lots of alcohol and beer and not much else. So many people didn’t realize that there was food (at The Whale & Ale) — a whole menu and not just chips.”
In the past few years, a number of bars that provide food have taken on the moniker, “gastropub,” signifying the advent of gourmet bar food. Some places meet the expectations, while others fall short. When asked about the proliferation of “gastropubs,” Andrew noted that despite the seeming popularity, it hasn’t truly caught on yet, but that the time is coming when it will.
“Real gastropub food is taking something like steak and kidney pie and adding foie gras or asparagus purée and making it somewhat jazzed up. So, it’s pretty innovative.”
Andrew opined that the emergence of the gastropub was a reaction against the general terribleness of pub food following World War II, when England suffered through severe shortages and rationing that persisted long after the last shot was fired in that war.
“When I was born in 1954, the war had been over nine years,” he said. “We still couldn’t get bananas. We had to get ration books and coupons to buy them.”
The gastropub made a point of turning that reputation around. It is an interesting sort of history.
A by-product of an all-boys private school in Kingston, London (the equivalent of high school) where he majored in French and Russian, Andrew knew from the very beginning he wanted a career in hotel management. This desire likely came from staying in one hotel after another while he travelled extensively with his father.
His father was an architect and structural engineer and his mother was a social worker. He knew early on he didn’t want to follow either of their paths. But those years of staying in hotels across Europe, from Switzerland to France, served as inspiration.
While there aren’t many chefs whose careers he follows, Andrew has been following the career of Dustin Trani, who he describes as just incredible and not just because he is from Pedro.
New Orleans’ celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, who is credited with revitalizing Creole-Acadian cooking on StarChefs.com, and Chicago’s Chef Charlie Trotter.
He and his wife don’t go on vacation often, but when they do, it’s usually a four-day trip to places like Palm Beach, Indianapolis, Portland or Seattle, “so that we could see more of the United States.”
“In Seattle, there’s a restaurant called the Pink Door that was excellent and another called Union,” Andrew noted. “San Francisco has so many fine restaurants, but my favorite right now is Bix.”
Andrew took note of San Francisco’s Piccolino’s and a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in that same city, Postrio’s.
When longtime Executive Chef David Juarez was at The Whale & Ale, he and Andrew would take weekend trips to San Francisco just to eat there because it was a fun thing to do. Andrew noted that David was fascinated with food and how it gets to be what it is. And why a chef comes out with those mixtures, flavors and textures.
At The Whale & Ale, you can always expect to leave in good cheer and well informed on your next destination for your culinary adventure.
The Whale & Ale
Address: 327 W. 7th St., San Pedro