Los Angeles is a celebrity town, catering to celebrity ways, and it runs on celebrity dollars. Most notable bars and clubs are obnoxiously exclusive: it’s difficult to get in, and once inside, you’d better be prepared to pay top dollar. Club and bar owners are proud that a cocktail will set you back at least $15.

So it was a surprise to discover Laurel Tavern, which opened on Ventura Boulevard last summer. The buzz was that it had a hip, pub atmosphere, great wine and beers selections and excellent food. People got together with friends and actually had conversations there.

I was deeply skeptical. The traditional posture taken during a night out in LA is to form cliques and then stare at other people with as much attitude as humanly possible when not glancing down at your iPhone.

As soon as I walked inside, though, a happy depressurization began. Laurel Tavern can accommodate about 100 people, and it is indeed friendly, cheerful and inviting. The floors are wooden planks recovered from a 1920s warehouse in Nebraska. There are rafters in the ceiling and the walls are exposed brick. Large chalkboards on both sides of the bar list beer, wine and food choices. Nobody gives you the stink eye. People chat and laugh and have a good time. You feel welcome.

The Pub Revisited

“Laurel Tavern is a rethink of the pub concept,” explains general manager Eric Zimmelman. “We wanted it to have all the warmth of the old-fashioned public meeting houses of Europe, but with a contemporary American feel.”

The owners, Mark Leddy and Will Shamalian, infused Laurel Tavern with a distinctive blend of comfort and style that, for LA, is shockingly affordable. The building in Studio City on Ventura in the heart of the Valley — home to the Valley’s “Sushi Row” — previously housed Sapphire, a late-night uber-trendy Martini club concept developed by Leddy and Shamalian.

Shamalian, who co-owns the upscale bar Library in downtown Los Angeles and Silver Lake’s 4300 Bar, felt the times were a-changing, and that people were going to be looking for a place that gave them plenty of bang for their bucks without sacrificing quality or style.
While Leddy and Shamalian do not take credit for seeing the coming world-wide economic collapse, their timing could not have been more prescient.

“You can come in and have a gourmet burger and a craft beer for $16, tax included,” says Zimmelman. And when Zimmelman says gourmet burger, he means it. The Laurel Burger, for instance, is a proprietary blend of sirloin and other choice cuts of meat, caramelized onions, gruyere cheese, arugula and sweet pickles. Served up on a brioche bun, the burger, together with a Hollywood Blonde, is a trip to heaven.

And then you have the carefully selected beers. Some of the top sellers are Telegraph White Ale, the 1903 Craftsman Lagers made in Pasadena, and the house favorite Hollywood Blonde, which is an American Kolsh beer. Expert Christina Perrozzi, a.k.a. “The Beer Chick,” was brought in to help make Laurel Tavern a home for savvy beer consumers. In all, there are 15 beers on tap, priced at $5 or $6 a pint.

In true pub fashion, there are no servers: patrons belly up to the bar to order drinks and food. That, too, contributes to the easy-going, non-VIP vibe. There are no bands, no trivia nights, no promotions, no drink specials, no signature cocktails and that’s part of the appeal — the environment is utterly without hype. Customers find the lack of promotions and specials refreshing.

A wag once said that the mindset of LA was much like the mindset of junior high school, except everybody has lots of money and fancy cars. Laurel Tavern, by contrast, is a place for grown-ups who still know how to have a little fun. NCB

Scott Morris muses about all things drinks and eats from Winter Park, Fla.

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