I turned 21 while abroad in France, so, having enjoyed lenient European drinking laws for months beforehand, my monumental birthday leap into the bar world wasn’t that special. The real moment I realized I had come of age was the final night of August, my first night in Claremont this year, when I showed up at the Back Abbey and was finally eligible to enjoy the pice de résistance of Claremont’s lone gastropub: the beers. Choosing from the 75-beer-strong list––50 or so of which hail from Belgium and 28 of which reside on draught––can be as challenging as an advanced Harvey Mudd astrophysics course. Belgian beers, after all, are the Salvador Dali of the beer world: always absurd and edgy, sometimes too bizarre to even be comprehensible, but also sometimes magically rewarding. Back Abbey patrons can enjoy a simple, soothing Fuller’s London Pride Ale, but the real fun comes from the thicker-than-Guinness Val Dieu, the sweet St. Louis Framboise (which defines “girlie drink” more than a cosmo), the Moinette Brune or Blonde, or the Celebrator, which tastes like the offspring of soy sauce and a pale ale.
Diners can also appreciate the Back Abbey without partaking in the adult beverages. Among the many food movements that have swept across the country in the past five years, from street food to nose-to-tail whole hog dining, the invention of the gastropub may be the most ambitious and satisfying for all. Trailblazers like the Spotted Pig in New York’s West Village and Santa Monica’s Father’s Office realized that bar patrons may actually want slightly spruced up pub grub with their drinks, rather than some microwaved buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks.
The Back Abbey’s cuisine is far from life-changing and can often be hit-or-miss if you stray away from its wheelhouse, but if you stick to the burgers and beer formula, you will be rewarded with the most enjoyable night to be had in Claremont outside of Foam.
At least half the tables each night order the Back Abbey Burger, a spectacular, juicy six-ounce beef patty that resembles more of a rib-eye than a Double-Double. Topped with aged gouda, microgreens, an addicting caramelized onion Niman Ranch bacon marmalade, and a mustard aioli, the burger could hold its own in a competition among L.A.’s burger elite. Although the Back Abbey Burger may seem like it’s a complete rip-off of the nearly identical, more famous Father’s Office burger, the Back Abbey’s may be superior; its slightly charred brioche bun adds more complexity to the burger than the commercial-tasting French roll of Father’s Office.
And yet, delightfully, the basic Back Abbey Burger may not even be the pub’s best. The seasonal burgers are top-notch such as the summer offering, an earthy burger topped with green chiles, and fall’s current “Red Monk” burger, slathered with an autumnal apple cranberry relish. Vegetarians need not worry with a portobello, zucchini, red bell pepper and onion “burger” that could make diehard carnivores see the vegetarian’s light. The burgers do not come with fries, but an order of twice-baked Kennebec potato pommes frites with a trio of dipping sauces (the horseradish chive always is the first to be finished) is essential. A full order comes in a cone that could feed the entire CMS offensive line.
Unfortunately, Back Abbey’s more ambitious dishes can fall flat. Mussels, the perfect companion to Belgian beers, are served in a lifeless broth that has less flavor than the water from my kitchen sink and are presented in a puzzlingly small cast iron pot that has no space for the empty shells, causing diners to spill broth all over the table fishing for mussels. The soft Bavarian pretzel is too soft and doughy, and the crab cake appetizer disappoints with too much cake and not enough crab.
If you are just not in the mood for burgers, though, there are some other winners. A schnitzel salad comes with a gigantic breaded pork loin perfectly fried in duck fat, resembling a salad in the same way sweetbreads mimic bread. The Man Salad, not surprisingly, comes with enough beef to serve five, a superb “French” tri tip sandwich slathered with St. Agur bleu cheese and a 12 ounce bone-in rib eye, which I’ve never seen offered anywhere else for $28. There are also some excellent sausages to accompany the German brews, and the aioli infused with a shot of the Belgian beer Augusttijn is sublime. Nobody ever orders desserts, but beignets are available, because nothing tastes better with beer than sweet fried dough.
The inside of the Back Abbey is crammed, dotted with empty kegs on the floor. Belgian beer bottles decorate the eight-seat L-shaped bar, which could use some larger TV screens. There is a communal table inside, but outside is far more spacious, with a beautiful lounge area in the rear that is popular with big student groups and intimate dates. The heat lamps don’t hit every table, so beware, and the noise inside can be as loud as the Ontario Airport tarmac.
Service can range from very friendly to completely indifferent. On the bright side, the staff are all Belgian beer experts to help us clueless rookies. The servers, however, are almost always slow in everything from taking orders to delivering beers and water, frequently forgetting details like who ordered what or bringing silverware and napkins. Back Abbey needs some sort of host system to take care of the mammoth-sized lines at peak hours that make grabbing tables and chairs often a chaotic free-for-all. The real root of the service problem is that the kitchen is miniscule, making it impossible to crank out food in an efficient manner, and the restaurant crams so many seats in so little space with so few servers that the inevitable result is sluggish service that exudes an unorganized feel.
When former chimney sweep John Solana founded the Back Abbey a little over two years ago, he simply had in mind a neighborhood tavern for Claremonters to mingle over some grub and brews. In a town devoid of quality bars and restaurants, the Back Abbey is a savior. Some tweaking to the service and cuisine could do wonders, but the burgers and beer list make this neighborhood tavern a destination-worthy gastropub and, hopefully, the beginning of a renaissance to the Claremont dining scene.