If you’ve lived in downtown for the past five years, you’ve noticed what the rest of us have been noticing…sweatshops have turned into American Apparel factories. Dilapidated theatres are remodeled into hipster hangouts. And Sizzlers are converted into gastropubs. FINALLY, on Figueroa and McCarthy Way, or right next door to the Galen Center, USC Hospitality has opened a holy trinity of college hangouts. Hopefully the kids will bite.
For years, USC students have been lacking a college hangout. The 29th Street Café (better known as “The 2-9”) is hardly worthy of a nickname and the 901 Bar and Grill (better known as “The 9-0”) is just too much of nothing to really be considered much of anything.
The new threesome consists of “McKay’s”, which acts like a poor substitute for what students remember of Upstairs Commons, “Rosso’s Pizzeria,” a classic pizza-by-the-slice, $12 pitcher of beer joint, and most importantly, “The Lab Gastropub.” Though McKay’s is okay and Rosso’s is a great addition, the hallmark of this grand opening is The Lab. Could it be? An actual COLLEGE HANGOUT?!
Last Monday, I walked into the romantically lit lounge bar; “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens was playing in the background. Chemical bonds were scrawled on chalkboards for the Daily Special and beakers were being used as beer glasses. March Madness took hold of the various college students and local downtownsters over several well-placed flat-screen TVs. Two beautiful blondes were chatting about communications midterms over glasses of white wine on studious leather chairs. After years of being shut out by the University Park community, I finally felt right at home.
I took a seat at the bar with my fraternity brother and was quickly greeted by a 30-something bartender who looked like he meant business. I debated over the 60-odd choices of red and white wine and the 30-odd choices of beer, before a $7 beer sampler caught my eye. I decided to experiment (I was in The Lab after all) and asked Speedy Gonzales to surprise me. Looking away for literally ten seconds, he slapped in front of me 4 small glasses of beer held on a piece of wood that oddly reminded me of my pledge paddle.
Some tasted familiar and good while others went down like bitter chicken piss. Speedy enlightened me on his choices; apparently San Diego microbrewery Karl Strauss has customized some of the OK beers, such as the Trojan Blonde. But The Lab took the privilege of putting so many choices on the menu; some wines and beers were downright awful.
We looked at the menu, which acted like most gastropubs, with assortments of flatbreads, appetizers, and trendy entrees, like sliders and gourmet mac & cheese. I chose the pulled-beef sandwich while my friend ordered the all-beef burger. While waiting, we took in the brand-spanking new atmosphere and wondered how this ever was once a Sizzler. Giant black slate tables with industrial lighting create a classroom outside of the classroom vibe (somehow this reminds me of A Night at the Roxbury). A long lounge sofa scattered with 2-party tables inhabits the south wing while a private party room occupies the north wing. The bar is chic-white with subway tiles and gallery lighting. Nearly a half dozen flat-screen LCD monitors play ESPN to an interested, but not overly enthused audience. And perhaps best of all, there is a patio just outside and located perfectly at the bottom steps of the Galan Center, hosting another half-dozen TVs and twice as many heaters.
Obviously, The Lab had hired an interior designer to oversee not only the subtle and creative incorporation of the chemistry class motif, but also the understanding that this place should serve the NEW locals, not the old. College Radio Revival: We have Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire playing for heaven’s sake! Finally, a place where college kids can come have a drink and a sandwich after class while also inviting 40-something downtownsters to grab a bite and a pint before heading to Staples Center or perhaps an SC basketball game.
The food came quickly, but I was beginning to notice a trend when we took our first bites. Bottom line: In its details, The Lab is hit or miss. My pulled-beef sandwich was PHENOMENAL. My buddy’s burger was a step above the Jack-in-the-Box two blocks away. The $30-40 range wine list had some great choices, but also some obscure WTF choices as well. And why anyone would put Old Speckled Hen on a beer menu has got to be living on Mars. But like my buddy tried to explain to me while sticking to the chemistry motif, this place was employing a mass action free radicals strategy, where the more choices you put on a menu, the higher probability you’ll find a reaction between populations. In other words, hit or miss. My god, I sound smart. Never thought I would learn something like that at a bar.
Unfortunately, acting like the new restaurant that it is, the wait at The Lab is inexperienced and frantic. Though friendly, they are hardly welcoming and don’t quite realize that they could drop their buttoned-up waiter gimmick for the college kids they are serving. My ID was checked about 3 different times because it seemed like waiters and bartenders have the craziest shift patterns. For some reason, no one knew their jurisdictions so I was constantly interrupted with the question, “Have you been helped yet?” At least they had the Pixies playing to the sound of my frustration.
Though I wouldn’t normally mention them, the bathrooms did a great job of adding to the hangout vibe. Two words: communal sinks. This is a great idea on several levels. Having this area feel more like part of the bar rather than part of the restroom, people washing their hands were much more open to quick chit-chat and jokes rather than the awkward exchange of body language you usually get in a restroom. Also, as I was quick to realize once my two female friends joined us, it kept the ladies out of the restrooms and at the tables. Fine job, gentlemen.
All and all, The Lab is the addition USC students have been drooling for. Apart from the growing pains, and the vague notion that if this were placed anywhere other than USC it wouldn’t survive, The Lab is a savior to students who constantly find it irritating that NONE of the businesses around USC cater to students. Here at The Lab, you can be seated at a giant slab table with four of your friends, and suddenly be greeted by the seating of four other people at your table. After about thirty minutes, you’re doing all the things you should be doing in college; meeting a crap load of new and interesting people, spending money on food you can’t afford, and trying every drink imaginable multiple times. This place keeps people interested in the people, not in the gimmicks of the bar like DDR or extremely overbearing music. And the drinks are cheap enough ($5 beer anyone?) so that one can stay and enjoy themselves for hours on end.
Why aren’t there more of these places for us college folk you ask? Why hasn’t the glorious rebirth of downtown trickled to the most vibrant, eclectic, rapturous community of downtown? Why have new locals and bright college kids been shut out for the old locals? Good f***ing question.
This is the part in the blog where I rant about how crappy our community is below Pico Blvd…
USC used to be well known as the “University of Spoiled Children.” Though this isn’t as true today as it once was, we still have an incredible population of daddy’s girls and silver-spooned sons who have money to burn and the will to burn it. I know about a few sorority houses worth of women who drive miles in their Mercedes and BMWs so that they can shop organic at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. If they want local, they are relegated to CalMart and Superior Super Market. Why don’t WE have Trader Joe’s?
If my friends and I want to grab a bite to eat, it’s usually the same argument about Subway or Taco Bell, not a local Mexican hangout with peanut shells on the floor and dartboards on the walls. Where is OUR local Mexican hangout?
Well my friends, let the revolution begin! And let it begin with a toast of Guinness at The Lab. The giant black slab tables can seat twenty, so there’s room for you. I guess the only downside to this revolution is that it has to start with USC Hospitality and not with private industry. At least you can spend dining dollars and discretion funds here. So let’s do our very best to give The Lab a try and support a revolution that has come far too late. As we say here at USC, FIGHT ON!