Naja’s Place – Winds hot enough to have been culled from the Devil’s own furnace bit at our tires like hungry snakes as we pulled off Interstate 40 at the junction of Route 66 where Essex and Fenner rub shoulders in the middle of nowhere, southeastern California. While the GPS declared we were still 10.2 miles from our quarry, the fuel gauge threatened to choke on the fumes of an empty tank; and the towering letters G-A-S rose from the scorched desert floor, a 20-foot sentinel guarding the gates of an oasis.
The pump didn’t take cards so I was forced to go in. A kind looking woman, who seemed to glow with a radiance younger than her years, was eating lunch behind the counter. I approached to pay for our gas, and by chance asked, “You probably know Naja’s Food and Drink Garden, don’t you? Just down the road 10 or so miles…”
With a mouth full of food, she shook her head and began pointing a finger firmly onto the counter. Finished with chewing, she said, “You’re here, this is it. I’m Najah.”
I’d found her: Najah Zeinaty, the original owner of Naja’s Place in Redondo Beach.
Birth of a legend
When I first began going to Naja’s, it was beer heaven. More taps lined the walls than my giddy system could take in without becoming overwhelmed, and there were at least five refrigerators full of exotic bottles. Above the 77 handles (to be exact), shelves of empty bottles from beers around the world provided the wallpaper while 25 oz. supermugs (as we called them) of dangerous elixirs like Piraat Belgian ale (10.5% ABV) and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine (9.6%) ran about $6 a pour. And a classy bartendress named Michelle slammed ‘em down with a foxy shout of “Here ya go, babe” before sliding them your way across the counter.
It was the choice spot to go for a good beer away from the ego-driven bars where vibes compete for some unseen trophy.
But when Najah, now in her 60s, purchased a little space along the International Boardwalk of King Harbor with her husband Ben Zeinaty in 1981, it didn’t have countless taps, and she didn’t name it after herself.
“The place was a little gift store – empty, nothing,” she tells me. “And when I open it was still little, I have, like, four tables… And I call it actually French name, Le Petit Fleur, first.”
Le Petit Fleur boasted all of three tables inside and one out, a maximum occupancy of about 15 people, and seven beers on draught. It was originally just the size of Naja’s current kitchen area.
“For awhile, every time people come, they like the place and they tell me, ‘I told my friend to come to Najah’s.’ People were saying, ‘Let’s go to Najah’s!’
“I said, ‘But the place wasn’t called Najah’s. It’s Le Petit Fleur!’
“I talked to my husband. ‘You know, our customer doesn’t really know the name, French is really hard, but they know me.’ So I decided we change the name to Naja’s Place.”
Najah, who was born in Palestine to a French-Lebanese mother and Palestinian father, lived in London for five years before setting out in her late-30s to the U.S. (landing, ironically, on the International Boardwalk). When her customers essentially renamed the bar for her, she just assumed to drop the H to make it easier to pronounce.
And so the legend of Naja’s Place had begun, and it began to grow. Gradually, Najah bought and absorbed three adjacent stores along the strip; but the beer selection expanded at a more dramatic rate. It jumped from seven taps to 17, and then made a gargantuan leap to 77, with an additional 777 imported bottles.