Steve Roberts: the South Bay’s palate shifter
Steve Roberts goes his own damned way. Others tend to follow.
Never was this more apparent than when he opened Café Boogaloo in 1995. The concept wasn’t complicated, but it was plenty audacious: a blues and roots music bar serving downhome Southern food, fine wine and beer.
By beer he meant craft beer. When he opened his doors, he erected a sign stage right that contained the house rules. “Stay off the stage. No smokin’. No cussin’. No Mustang Sally.”
But if you looked at the line of 27 tap beer handles behind the bar, you realized there was another, unwritten rule. No bad beer. He’d opened up a blues bar that didn’t contain a single mainstream brewery. Every last handle was from a craft brewery. At that time, this was high-nigh unheard of, outside of beer lovers Meccas such as Naja’s Place in Redondo Beach and Father’s Office in Culver City.
Roberts recalls a Budweiser rep walking through the door one day. As he walked away rebuffed, he told Roberts Café Boogaloo was doomed.
“Budweiser told me you’ll never make it carrying just microbrew,” Roberts recalled. “’You are not going to make it without our beer.’ But I knew there were a lot of likeminded people around, and this would be good for the South Bay – they had to drive to the Westside to get beer.”
Boogaloo’s blend of blues and good brew flourished, and still does to this day, even after he sold the establishment to local operators who have kept its beer ethos largely intact. Roberts now manages Charlie’s: a New York Italian Joint. The restaurant, a longtime Redondo Beach institution, actually began as a kitchen within Naja’s Place before opening as a restaurant. Owner Charlie Byrd has always used family recipes, and now his place offers a fine wine and beer selection that matches its careful, handcrafted food.
Like most of the local beer community, Roberts doesn’t feel a sense of competition. The more craft beer become ubiquitous, he says, the more people’s palates expand and the greater the appreciation for better beer and food.
“It’s great to watch everyone jump on board. It’s a beautiful thing,” Roberts said. “In my mind, the more the merrier. We are all in this together.”
Roberts is also quick to give credit where credit is due. He singles out two places in particular that influenced his appreciation for beer: City of Angels Brewing Company and Father’s Office in Culver City. Back in the late ‘80s, not long after he’d arrived in the South Bay from Florida, he worked at the City of Angels Brewing Company in Santa Monica, one of Los Angeles’ foundational breweries. After work, he and other employees would make a pilgrimage to Father’s Office.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is a whole new world. I can’t drink ales anymore. I won’t. The more bitter the better,’” he said.
As the vision for Boogaloo began to coalesce, beer was central. He believes Boogaloo was the first to introduce to the South Bay such seminal brews in the craft beer movement as Port Brewing Company and Russian River Brewing. Some of his blues-loving customers at first found this hard to take. He remembers the first appearance by one customer who would become a 15-year regular.
“Can I have a Budweiser?” the man asked.
Nope, Roberts replied. Don’t have any.
“Then how about a Miller?”
“Then he says, ‘Well, then just give me a Jack Daniels,’” Roberts recalled. “’I don’t want none of that microbrew crap.’ Now that same guy – that’s all he drinks.”
Roberts believes that the beer movement is taking off now in part because of a growing appetite for more authenticity in both food and drink.
“I think people are more in tune with what they ingest, because all the Food Channel stuff and just a growing awareness,” he said. “Wouldn’t you rather have something made by those hard-working, local guys down the street, instead of something made by some big corporation that doesn’t give a damn what’s in it? And if you are going to eat good, why not drink good – that is what the mindset is all about.”
“There are four things in beer. Hops, barley, yeast, and water. That’s it. There shouldn’t be anything else,” Roberts said. “I look forward to the day I don’t have to look at Coors f’ing Light anymore.”
Charlie’s: a New York Italian Joint, 601 N. PCH, Redondo Beach, (310)374-8581. Café Boogaloo, 1238 Hermosa Ave. Hermosa Beach, (310)318-2324.