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Restaurant Love Letters: Beachwood BBQ
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Restaurant Love Letters: Beachwood BBQ

In this new column, contributors, readers, fellow chefs, and casual diners share their “Restaurant Love Letters.” It’s our hope that this series highlights the spirit of hospitality, the importance of restaurants and dining culture to our economy, and more critically, to the fabric of our daily lives. This is our way of saying thank you to the industry, we appreciate you, and we’ll be waiting here for you when you get back.

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APRIL 15, 2020
BY STEF FERRARI

I’ve been straining to recall the first time I sat down to a meal at Beachwood BBQ in Seal Beach, California. I usually have some epiphanic moment in which I know the place will stick with me forever. 

But I can’t remember any such occasion at Beachwood. And I think that’s because it has never felt new to me. Despite that I didn’t move to Orange County until I was twenty-two years old, Beachwood always felt like home. 

I moved out west because I got it in my head that I wanted to work in the beer business. This was 2007, when beer geeks were still a rare breed. I clawed my way into the industry at The Bruery—a Belgian-style craft producer in Placentia, California—and I showed up wide-eyed and ready to do anything. But my first order of business after getting my first paycheck was a personal mission: to find the best beer bar in town. I asked my new coworkers to point the way, and the answer was unanimous: Beachwood. 

The place was nothing like I expected though, and a far cry from gastropubs that were all the rage at the time. The narrow space was fed by a narrow hallway where hundreds of tap handles from breweries all over the world lining the ceiling, and kegs were stacked in every available space. But it was clean and bright, the color palette of coral and pacific ocean blue nothing like the dingy, dank bars I was used to. It was mid-century modern meets your mom’s living room—if your mom had excellent taste in beer. There was even meatloaf on the menu. The servers wore t-shirts from breweries I revered, and on the back wall hung a massive peg board with about thirty dangling tiles, each with the name of a beer currently on tap. I watched throughout the afternoons and evenings as kegs would kick and a server would go hang a new tile, all of us nerds hanging on with bated breath to see what was on deck from the impeccably curated list. 

And beyond the theatrics of it all in person, the real stroke of genius was that you could follow along from afar. This was long before the days of Instagram, so the fact that one could log onto the restaurant’s website and access the “Hopcam”—a live broadcast from inside the restaurant—was mind-blowing. On more than one occasion, I’d catch sight of some beer name through the portal of my computer screen that I knew wouldn’t last long, and be in my car before I could log out of Internet Explorer.

I quickly became familiar with the faces at Beachwood. Its chef and owner Gabe Gordon could always be found in a short-sleeve Hawaiian shirt or sporting gear from some rad brewery, grinning and talking about the latest releases with the regulars. His wife and co-owner Lena Perelman was a beacon, greeting every guest, leading a front-of-house staff that couldn’t have been more stoked to be there. I know this because of how many of them hung out off-duty.

And let me not forget the food. Everything smoked on site. A smoked brisket burger with a thick slice of green tomato. Blue cheese grits with fried sage leaves balancing on top. A perfect bar snack of smoked peanuts and pistachios and house-cured olives. The fried pickles to which Lena lent her name. 

Believe it or not, it was also in this barbecue joint where I first realized vegetables could be delicious. I was a super picky eater before I ventured into Beachwood. When a server sold me on smoked asparagus to go with my pulled chicken sandwich I was skeptical, but it was a revelation—just smoke, oil and salt—and it truly changed my long-term eating habits. Gordon knew the value of manipulating a good piece of produce as little as possible, but he could also be a culinary wizard. For a beer dinner collaboration with The Bruery, he created a molecular gastronomy menu (in those days, a totally avant-garde style of cooking) that could have easily fetched a few hundred bones in some swanky New York City restaurant. It was a paradigm shift. Foie gras French toast paired with a wheat wine, which had notes of toasted oak, pineapple and vanilla. A spinach “salad” made of liquid nitrogen “dippin’ dots,” an expert complement to the ale on the table.

That sensibility wasn’t out of left field if you knew where Gabe was coming from. He was a fine dining chef before Beachwood, but when he found the location for his own restaurant, he told me how they landed on the concept. He stood outside the empty space, asking locals what they wished to see open up. And when the consensus was barbecue, he researched and developed a menu that gave the people exactly what they asked for. He didn’t waltz into town with big ideas, trying to impose his thoughts and culinary “philosophy” on the community. It was an ego-free, diner-first attitude that can be rare. And he didn’t ever abandon it. I watched later as he found ways to make the menu more friendly for vegetarians, for folks with kids, for someone who just had a hankering for something off-menu.

That attitude helped create a community that extended even beyond Beachwood’s walls. It wasn’t just the people behind the bar. For those of us at the bar, it felt like we were all in on a secret. We bumped into each other at other beer bars or events, and understood that our home base was Beachwood. It was a culture that transcended table or bartop.

The lessons I learned from Gabe ranged from the culinary (a strawberry can do almost anything a tomato can), to business (I once asked him how he built such a loyal following; he shrugged and said he just loved to stay late and play darts with the regulars), to quality of life (he always made time for friends and family, and to pursue his passion as a surfer—all rare for a chef). Observing Lena showed me the value of a genuine smile, even when the wait was hours long, the line spilling out into the street, she never missed an opportunity to express her gratitude, and to remember the names of a customer or their child—or their dog. I saw her encourage her staff when they were at their most harried, and stop by lingering tables when she probably just wanted to go home.

I brought my family there first when they visited me. I went for dinner to celebrate the anniversary of a relationship, and then I went when we broke up. I went on Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons. I went with coworkers and I went with friends. I went alone and left with new pals. I went for a half-pint when I was pressed for time. I hogged a corner table for hours when I had a night off, ordering bottles off the reserve cellar menu, picking at a plate of olives when I wasn’t ready to go home just yet, and was never once made to feel like I’d worn out my welcome. 

But for a lonely transplant, the only thing more important than a hot meal and a quality beer was good people. Beachwood had that in spades. It was Justin and Chelsea and Jackie and Kyle. It was Gabe and Lena, who were so integral to my life that when I got married, I didn’t think twice about who would cater the party—and also be on the guest list. And on my last night in town after I made the tough call to move back east, they closed the restaurant to the public and told me to invite all my friends for a going away party. I have photos of me holding three three-liter bottles of Russian River sour beers, grinning like crazy. If you speak even a little beer geek, you understand how special this is.

After I moved away, they grew into a second location in Long Beach and opened Beachwood Brewing, which has gone on to win major beer awards. I’ve watched with the kind of pride I don’t really deserve to have—because I don’t own the place and I haven’t contributed to its creation or success, other than to show up and be a humble patron. But that’s how it feels to be a Beachwood regular. Like you’re a part of something, even long after you’ve last set foot inside.

I don’t know if I can ever express how much this place means to me—to my life—despite only a few brief years as a regular. I live three thousand miles away now, and yet, twelve years after my first experience—whenever that might’ve been—it remains vital to me, even in memory. When I imagine that narrow hallway, a barstool, and a bowl of smoked nuts, asking the server what they think I should try from the taplist, shootin’ the shit with other regulars about new releases, I feel my blood pressure level out. I exhale, even just at the memory of that feeling. Of being really cared for. Of being right at home.

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