Master of Mixology
Bourbon blends and gourmet eats are just the ticket at theater’s tavern
By David Nelson
SDUN Restaurant Critic
One of the longer-running urban legends on American college campuses assures freshmen that “Playboy just listed the top 10 party schools, and didn’t include (name your school) because they don’t count professionals.”
This has been a proud boast of matriculated tipplers for decades, and one that many who now shuffle to bed at 10 p.m. still believe. Even if youth is wasted on the young, can partying ever be characterized as time poorly spent? (Probably, yes.)
Restaurateur David Cohen never needed an urban legend. He created a legend at McGill University in Montreal, where he earned a D.M., otherwise known as a Doctor of Mixology. Canada’s drinking age of 18 gave him an advantage, kind of like an advanced placement course.
Originally from a suburb of New Haven, Conn., which he found boring (few Yalies would agree), the 30-year-old Cohen says, “Montreal definitely was not boring, so it filled that void for me. The nightlife was great!”
It clearly was his freshman year. “The first year was the only one when on-campus housing was available,” says Cohen. “We had a party in the dorm one night, and it was a lot of fun.” It must have been, since he promptly opened an “underground bar” in his dormitory’s basement (the McGill administration gave the club its blessing. Imagine San Diego State doing that – applications would soar!)
“I called it the Doug Pub because it was in Douglas Hall,” says Cohen, a cool dude who at McGill would be known as a “cool dude” because, he notes, “In Montreal, they anglicize everything.” (In French, Quebec’s official language, he’d be a “beau mec.”) “I had fun running the pub and I made good money, too,” he adds.
He then worked multiple roles in the industry in Montreal (waiter, bartender, manager), which prepared him for proprietorship of West Coast Tavern. This hot, friendly joint with good food occupies the divided former lobby of the restored Birch North Park Theatre, originally known as the Fox West Coast Theatre when it was one of the largest and grandest neighborhood cinemas in San Diego. Partial proof is the enormous “West Coast” sign in the front bar, which appears new but was fabricated from rustproof aircraft aluminum in 1927. Cohen and helpers pried the sign off the back of the building and installed it indoors, where it poses dramatically in a place familiar with stagecraft.
An eatery called Hawthorn’s once occupied the space; West Coast pours both a new look and a vibe that vibrates. DJ music sometimes kicks in around 9 p.m., and after food service concludes at midnight, the bar hustles until 2 a.m. Bartenders pour standard drinks, wines, craft beers and Bud Light, as well as specialties (eight and nine bucks) like the Lon Chaney Martini, made with prime Russian Standard vodka, cucumber and fresh lime. Few patrons able to sit upright have seen Lon Chaney films, but the drink may be named for the “Master of Disguise” because the world looks different after a glass or two. Bourbon beverages, all $9, are another specialty, and while names like Porch Bison are utterly unintelligible, the blend of Makers Mark, iced tea and lemonade straightforwardly wastes good booze. Praise goes to the Old Fashioned with Eagle Rare bourbon, bitters, orange and a luminescent red cherry, and to the Old Pier 7, a Manhattan made exactly as master Manhattan-makers make them, even though it forswears the name. These transport drinkers to the age of cocktail sophistication, decades before the birth of virtually any West Coast patron.
The menu accompanies drinks, plain and simple. The list of “small plates,” often piled high, is written by chef Matt Gordon of Urban Solace and cooked by West Coast chef Chris Antes. Like WC, it avoids pretension but has mucho style. The collaboration between North Park establishments is ideal, since they avoid competing for diners while fueling a synergy that makes North Park prime for nightlifers.
After a couple of drinks, everything frankly tastes good. Or Franco-ly, since it’s easy to imagine James Franco, in stoner character, skipping the charred green beans with wild mushrooms and roasted garlic vinaigrette ($6) for desserts like flourless, marvelously light chocolate, raspberry and pistachio torte; hot apple cobbler with vanilla bean ice cream, and cardamom-ginger crème brulee (all $7). All others might precede these with bacon-wrapped, nut-stuffed dates ($7), and mighty fine Dungeness crab cakes with citrus cole slaw ($11). Ground lamb sliders with feta, caramelized onions and rosemary aioli are sensational, as are crispy eggplant sliders with roasted red pepper ($8). Hand-cut, ale batter-fried onion rings ($6) go well with anything, as do the West Coast fries ($5) with fines herbes, sea salt and garlic aioli, which may seem novel to Cohen, who at McGill probably dunked frites in malt vinegar, as would any Canadian able to lift a Moosehead. There are about two dozen other choices.
Weekly Monday “movie nights” screen vintage flicks in the adjacent theater, and upgrading the $7 ticket to $10 buys a brew or glass of wine. Cohen says, “We try to show movies that are pretty off-the-cuff,” and features like Movie Night likely will grant his wish for West Coast to become “a classic.”
“We don’t want to be a flash-in-the-pan place,” Cohen says. “We’ll do it for another 30 years.” Remember this in 2040, when the Doctor of Mixology still will be a half-decade shy of 65.
West Coast Tavern
2895 University Ave.
San Diego, CA 92104