This weekend is The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. If you happen to be attending and you want to get out to see the town beyond what Shoreline Village has to offer, you will want to take a walk to Downtown (trust us: leave the driving to the racers). Here are 10 essential places in Downtown Long Beach this humble food critic thinks is worth the side trip.
Long Beach is full of breakfast joints, but none quite like this. Located in the heart of downtown and serving as the restaurant to the hotel it's attached to, The Breakfast Bar is part diner, part bar, part LGBT and hipster hangout. The diner part makes insane egg dishes such as the thing called The Hungover, wherein a mountain of fresh, hot French fries gets piled with cheese-laced scrambled eggs, sausage gravy, onions and peppers. And if you don't have a hangover yet, they stock an eclectic mix of beer, some good wine, and specialty cocktails made with soju. Take the cucumber lemonade, a refreshingly brisk surge of tart, sweet and coolness which has enough cucumber shavings to qualify as a salad. And when you need more food to fortify your stomach from your third or fourth glass, try their signature omelet casserole, whose recipe was reportedly passed down for three generations and takes 24 hours to make.
70 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, CA 90802, (562) 726-1700; the-breakfast-bar.com
Congregation, which is part of a mini chain of beer bars with other “chapters” in Azusa and Pasadena, has a church theme; but it’s done with just enough tongue-in-cheekiness it bypasses blasphemy and becomes nothing more than good-natured satire. A “collection plate” next to the register is actually the tip jar. Happy Hours are called “Mass,” with a late-night one called “Midnight Mass.” And flitting about the room in fetishistic Catholic-schoolgirl uniforms with pleated skirts hitched up scandalously far above the knee are servers who’ll offer to top off your soda. But if it’s water you want, you get it yourself at a “Holy Water” station. Religious kidding aside, Congregation is all business everywhere else. It’s downright liturgical in charging only $7 to $8 for the holy trinity of foods that go well with beer: sausage sandwiches, burgers and pizza. This place understands that people who are willing to queue up to order food in a bar like this aren’t interested in anything fancier than what they can hold in their hands or eat with their fingers.
201 E Broadway Ave., Long Beach, CA 90802, (562) 432-2337; congregationalehouse.com
George's is an institution. They have four restaurants in Southern California. This one is, by far, the most popular. Lamb chops, hummus, gyros, and belly dancing on Saturdays. And oh, don't forget the saganaki, that fried cheese appetizer. On Fridays, they do a special one-night only special lamb dish called kleftiko. And oh did we mention the belly dancing on Saturdays?
135 Pine Ave., Long Beach, CA 90802, (562) 437-1184; georgesgreekcafe.com
James Republic has such lovable quirks. For example: using jars for just about every appetizer and dessert. To back up claims that it’s “sustainable,” James Republic recycles its old menus to use as doilies. And because of this ethos—–one that no new restaurant these days goes without—–the menu changes daily. Named after chef Dean James Max—–the empire-building, James Beard-nominated chef responsible for other high-achieving restaurants—–the place counts the time since it opened, with its days printed atop the menus and scrawled on a chalkboard near the kitchen. How a dish reads one day will be different than the days before or after. Get the potato puree, which will be served in a jar you wished you had longer fingers to squeegee, and then finish with the warm, sticky toffee bread pudding, which is actually served on a plate.
500 E 1st St., Long Beach, CA 90802, (562) 901-0235; jamesrepublic.com
King's is a chain of seafood restaurants that have done well for itself around these parts serving predictable, consistent seafood, and priced reasonably. Fish dinners are served with two “sidekicks” and retail for less than $20 on average. The open dining area is classic in design–a fisherman's trophy room mixed with a splash of art deco. Silkscreen banners and mounted fish decorate the space, and panes of corrugated glass separate each dining booth. Get the steamed clams or mussels, all squiggly and fresh in a bowl of brothy liquid that's the perfect for dunking those fleshy ocean jewels before you gulp them down. This soup, full of body from the dripping mussel and clam juices, is fortified with a touch of wine and good enough to sip like a fine consommé.
100 W. Broadway, Long Beach, CA 90802, 562-432-7463; http://www.kingsfishhouse.com
Pier 76 Fish Grill recently moved from one side of Downtown Long Beach to the other. It’s a pay-at-the-counter, quick-service, moderately -priced seafood restaurant modeled in the same spirit as California Fish Grill. The dining room is barely a room at all, with butcher-block tables and a cramped space no bigger than most Subways. But as evidenced by the excellent mussels he steams and the live lobsters he grills with roasted garlic butter, owner Chris Krajacic is aiming higher than the fast-casual his restaurant appears to be—. Much higher. He joins Slapfish'’s Andrew Gruel’ and Roe Restaurant'’s Arthur Gonzalez in that seafood-restaurant sweet spot between the California Fish Grills of the world and the Scott’s Seafoods.
95 Pine Ave., Long Beach, CA 90802,(562) 983-1776; pier76fishgrill.com
Rebel Bite is an Italian-inspired Southern restaurant. You must order the squid-ink pizza—a pie slathered with a jet-black substance that coats the pencil-eraser-like nubs of the stir-fried calamari as though spilled crude oil. Eat a slice, wipe your mouth, and your napkin ends up looking as though a printer had a catastrophic cartridge malfunction. But if you close your eyes while you do it, your brain will tell you what your mouth already knows: The stuff is even better than any tomato sauce or cheese. This is an extraordinary pizza: crisp-crusted; balanced between the tangy, the salty and the fishy; and, most important, something Rebel Bite never offered when it was a just a food truck.
649 E. Broadway, Long Beach, CA 90802, 562-437-0555;http://www.rebelbite.com
You've seen fried chicken and waffles being served everywhere. Now eat it at the mini-chain that practically invented it, the one mentioned in movies and TV shows, and well just, about everybody who speaks the phrase “chicken and waffles”. The fried chicken is glorious, cooked in cast-iron pans and then served, with, you guessed it fresh crispy waffles.
730 E. Broadway, Long Beach, CA 90802, 562-437-8355; http://www.roscoeschickenandwaffles.com
The building you're in is the historic Breakers Hotel, built in 1926 when the Long Beach waterfront was practically steps from Ocean Boulevard–not a mile away, as it is today. Elizabeth Taylor and her first husband, Nicky Hilton, spent their honeymoon at the penthouse suite. Their love nest was converted into the Sky Room restaurant when his father, Conrad Hilton, bought the structure and turned it to the eighth hotel in his chain in 1938. In its heyday, the restaurant hosted Clark Gable and John Wayne as customers. Today, the building houses retirees, but the Sky Room is still in operation. If the Art Deco scheme has gone a little stale, you excuse it because of the view of Long Beach Harbor, the old-school dishes such as the Salad de Maman tossed table-side and the massive osso bucco.
40 S. Locust Ave. Long Beach, CA 90802, 562-983-2703; http://www.theskyroom.com
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.