How do you update a time-tested local institution to embrace a changing dining landscape without alienating the loyal regulars? Restauranters seeking that perfect balance could take a page from the book down at Tom Bergin's as the 76-year old Irish tavern recently did just that. New is a polished and remodeled interior, some new menu items, an expanded list of Irish whiskeys and a cocktail program by Aiden Demarest and Marcos Tello that brings the bar to modern cocktail standards, while staying true to the bar's signature spirit - Irish whiskey.
The regulars circle the more casual bar up front, absorbed in their pints and baseball games on the TVs above the bar. We make our way to the more formal dining area in the back where the walls are lined with framed horse photos and the tables are draped with white table clothes. Our server brings us a basket of traditional Irish soda bread (below). He's an old school pro - something of a rarity in Los Angeles - and his solicitousness fits right in with the decor and atmosphere.
The dark wood, frame photos and fireplace bring a cozy Old World feel to the room, and the drinks take inspiration from that, but with updated twists. The Irish Maid (below, left) livens up Bushmill's Whiskey with sugar, lime juice, mint and cucumber. The Cameron's Kick (below, right) similarly sweetens and lightens up Bushmill's and blended Scotch with orgeat and lemon juice.
The new food menu also riffs off the traditional by giving you dishes that are not quite familiar but still feel like comfort food. For example, the fried spicy chicken skin with Cashel blue cheese sauce for dipping are reminiscent of buffalo wings, but with an addictive crunch that keeps us reaching for more.
Colcannon is one of our favorite Irish comfort foods, typically made with creamy mashed potatoes and either cabbage or kale. Tom Bergin's spins the dish off in a healthy direction with its Colcannon Salad (below), making kale - lightly dressed with a light creme fraiche of roasted spring onion - the star, with grilled potatoes serving in a supporting role as a bed for the greens.
Our very favorite appetizer may be the fried Cooleeney cheese (below) which is not only fun to say, but comes topped with an Irish curry apple salad. The unusual flavor combination is new to our tastebuds and beyond delicious. A must-order dish on your next visit.
The smoked chicken liver pate (below) should please fans of offal-y things, and the smooth spread works really nicely with the slices of buttery grilled bread.
We also get the jacket potato (below), which comes twice-baked and topped with butter, chives, creme fraiche and aged cheddar. If you want to get real crazy, you can add mushrooms or bacon to the mix for an extra buck.
After the appetizer round, we're already reeling from the delicious carb-overload. Which makes it the perfect time to sample more excellent concoctions from the bar. Both the Cooper Union (below, left) with Red Breast, St. Germain, Islay Scotch and orange bitters, and the Mascushla Manhattan (below, right) Black Bush, Benedictine, Lillet and Angostura bitters, shine a spotlight on the liquor without being overwhelming.
Back in the food world, the fish n' chips (below) is one of those classics that needn't be futzed with. Regulars should still be cheersing the flaky fried fish as well as the near perfect fries that accompany them. Seriously, the thick-cut fries are dangerously good.
Another more traditional house-specialty is the house-cured corned beef and cabbage (below). The hand-cut corned beef is juicily salty, and the accompanying buttered cabbage, potatoes and carrots are straight from your Irish gramma's kitchen.
The Cottage Pie (below) is another winner. Tender chunks of braised beef, peas and carrots, hide underneath a layer of Dubliner cheese and mashed potatoes that are stand-alone fantastic.
As we move toward dessert, the peeled Irish Buck (below, left) appeals to the sweet tooth. Made with Bushmill's, apple juice, ginger syrup, lime juice and soda water, it's a light, fizzy treat with candied ginger garnishing its tall collins glass. But no trip to Tom Bergin's would be complete without an Irish Coffee, or in this case, two versions of the stuff (below, right). The traditional version (Bushmill's, hot coffee, demerara sugar and cream) may be a staple at Tom Bergin's, but they also serve a colder version called the Sheridan Special (Bushmill's, coffee and Galliano Ristretto stirred over ice and served with a dollop of hand whipped cream) that gets the job done just as well. Hot or cold, you can't really lose.
Desserts are an unexpected surprise. The Guinness stout chocolate cake (below, left) is rich, don't get me wrong, but the inclusion of beer tempers the chocolate perfectly. As good as the cake is, the Carrageenan Pudding (below, right) is a real revelation: a silky-smooth, lightly sweet, creamy concoction that uses an ancient Irish gelling agent, Carrageenan seaweed, to give it a custardy consistency. And the lemon shortbread and berries are great accessories.
We walked out of Tom Bergin's the restaurant's most recent converts, and fittingly, overheard a woman on her way in telling her friends that she'd been coming here for thirty years. Old or new, there's an appealing charm down at Tom Bergin's that's kept people coming back through the decades. With the new improvements to the establishment and the food and cocktail menu, there's no reason why it can't keep them coming back at least a few decades more.
*Discolosure: This was a hosted meal.
840 S. Fairfax Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Hours: Mon-Sun: 11:30a - 2:00a