It's entirely possible to eat your way through Long Beach without ever touching a chain restaurant. After all, this isn't the 'burbs where dinner options stop at cookie-cutter casual dining establishments like Applebee's or California Pizza Kitchen; we are blessed with enough small businesses to full stomachs for years.
And yet, I always find myself drawn into our Yardhouse, that upscale rock 'n' roll bar of a beer-loving chain that started in the tacky cotton-candy-colored tourist mall of Shoreline Village 20 years ago and now has almost 70 locations in 23 states.
That's right: Long Beach's Yardhouse is the original location, a pristine palace of waterfront dining that almost makes me feel like I'm eating local (even though the chain was bought by Olive Garden owners Darden Restaurants in 2012).
When Yardhouse first opened, it took a chance on an empty space in an even emptier part of the city, luring people down to muddy Shoreline Drive with its views of Rainbow Harbor, its menu of global-American pub grub, its daily curated classic rock soundtrack and an 11,000-square-foot, two-story keg room that still clocks in as the largest remote draft beer system ever constructed.
Say what you will about Yardhouse today, but they were one of the only places at the time (a good decade before the current craft beer revolution) with the balls to install 250 taps that constantly pour a rotating selection of beers from around the world. It's a reputation of progressiveness they've surprisingly managed to maintain, always updating taplists to stay up with new releases and current trends.
Usually, I'll admit, I'm there for the twice-daily happy hours, when Yardhouse's corporate prices are reduced on a hearty selection of pizzas and appetizers, and discounts can be had on every drink in the house. For years, I have refused to order away from the happy hour options, mostly intimidated by the 140-item full menu that after a dozen re-inventions now includes everything from American classics, like a $28 rib eye steak dinner, to (possibly offensive) loose interpretations of ethnic foods, like their $16 plate of “vampire” “street tacos” (it's not like a taco vampiro at all).
But a few recent lunch visits have helped lure me out of my happy hour hole and forced me to explore beyond my go-to favorites like the spicy tuna roll, the lettuce wraps and the moo shu egg rolls (which are also not like moo shu pork at all).
The easiest lunches are hidden on the bottom of the 2-foot-tall menu, and are available during a wide window between opening and the start of afternoon happy hour. It's a choose-one-from-column-A-one-from-column-B kind of deal, where you can get a half sandwich or personal-size pizza with a soup or salad for $10. The pastrami, beef dip and turkey club are all on there, as are a few basic pizzas, which you can pair with their gooey French onion soup, home-style chicken noodle soup, white-girl kale Caesar salad (which is really more iceberg lettuce) or others.
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Beyond that, the burgers, entree salads and regular sandwiches are all moderately priced for lunch-ness, and veer from the basic with house inventions like the lamb burger (feta cream cheese, jalepeño shallot relish), blackened chicken torta (topped with chipotle mayo and cumin crema) and a barbecue chicken salad that for $11 is two meals in one. Vegetarians will be stoked on Yardhouse's recent partnership with Gardein, which allows for meatless meat versions of most house favorites.
It can't be easy running a restaurant of Yardhouse's size – in addition to the massiveness of the menu, there is massiveness of staff and of the location itself – so I'll forgive them for the not-so-speedy lunches I've routinely been experiencing there. I've learned to make sure I take a friend who is good conversation and to take the opportunity to slow down and enjoy the harbor view (which pairs perfectly with a shorty of IPA). Even though we don't have to, it's okay to eat at a casual-dining chain restaurant once in a while – as long as it has local roots.