Malt Does More Than Milton Can: An Afternoon at Seal Beach's 320 Main

I suppose you've noticed that these posts trend toward the serious. Perhaps pompous, to be frank. Skanky city hall politics and the shadow of history falling over sunny illusions, along with bits of muddled lyricism and a splash of melancholy ... these pieces get sort of weltschmerz-y and splenetic.

When that happens, then Ishmael's complaint (in the opening paragraphs of Moby Dick) makes sense to me:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
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The sea is out of the question. I have a weak stomach. Instead, I take my spleen to 320 Main (on Main Street, naturally) in Seal Beach for a round of drinks.

320 Main has a small dining room, some outside seating facing the street, and a fine, short menu of entrees and small plates. The bar on the other side of the dining room is sufficiently long to create a convivial assembly when it fills, but there also are four or five tables for couples and a bar extension that looks into the kitchen. The staff is cheerful. The bartenders I know -- Austin and Kayla -- are expert.

Jason Schiffer is the owner and resident genius of the place.

I sat down at the bar and ordered a classic Old Fashion, a style of mixed drink that goes back to the earliest years of the 19th century, which explains the name. My friend had a house version of the same style of drink made with apple brandy, rye, cane syrup, and bitters. The theme of all Old Fashions (at least to me) is sweetness with an astringent note brought out by bitters.

At 320 Main, bottles of bitters in various flavor combinations line the edge of the bar, ready to deliver orange, spice, herbs, and aromatic woods (really) to a cocktail.

Jason Schiffer was working up a specifically winter drink at the bar. He invited my friend and me to join him in working on its flavor profile. The base was warm Dr. Pepper, a soft drink that tends to cherry and spice flavors masked by sweetness. Dr. Pepper, like all mass-marker soft drinks, has lost a lot of its former intensity to corn sugar blandness.

To the Dr. Pepper, Jason had added rum, flavored spirits, and bitters. We took a sip. Another. The drink still wasn't breaking out. Jason made a change in the flavored spirits and added more bitters. A pinch of salt improved the taste, but only in the front of the mouth. Nothing of the flavors lingered.

Warm rum suggested butter to Jason, both for the mouth feel and the probability that fat would allow some flavors to hang around until the next sip. That worked. A drink for a winter's night was almost ready, perhaps to go up on the 320 Main chalkboard soon.

I suggested the new drink be called a Red Nose Reindeer. My friend suggested Silent Night. That seemed to work, too.

Hypos diminished by the application of a well-made cocktail and the Mr. Wizard fun of seeing Jason assemble a drink from the materials of the back bar, I turned out on Main Street and into an easterly wind. Catalina was ahead, silhouetted across the channel, and no coffin warehouses or funerals were in sight.

It was an L.A. November, and the air was still bright.

For another drinker's take, here's a poem from the collection A Shropshire Lad (1896) by A. E. Housman (1859-1936).

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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