Photo by John Valenzuela
The Back Abbey, 128 N. Oberlin Ave. (at 2nd), Claremont; closed Sundays
The Back Abbey opened in June 2008 behind the Laemmle theater in Claremont’s Village Expansion. The building, which dates to at least the 1920s, was an ice house that chilled citrus bound by rail for other states. The small, distinctive structure was saved when the Expansion was being planned and sat, window-less but full of promise, until early this year when renovations began.
Well, it’s a neat little building and the Belgian pub that occupies it is a great addition. A friend and I went in for dinner a few days ago. It has a lived-in look, dark and rustic. The metal rafters are exposed and the hanging lights look industrial. There are tables inside, and one long high table with bar-style chairs, good for individuals, plus seating outside.
The beer menu apparently doesn’t exist. The food menu is on a chalkboard posted high above the bar. It consists of salads, burgers and bratwursts. It’s upscale bar food.
I had the Back Abbey Burger (at $13, possibly the most expensive burger in the Inland Valley) and my friend had the Grilled Vegetable Burger ($11), a portabello mushroom with eggplant, feta cheese, zucchini, red bell peppers and another item or two I got tired of craning my neck to read off the menu. It proved far more interesting than a Gardenburger.
My burger came on a brioche bun and had mustard aioli, microgreens, caramelized onions and a type of bacon whose proper name I couldn’t read. Well, it was a heckuva burger and worth the $13, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t blanch at a double-digit burger.
The presentation and price, not to mention the setting, invite comparisons to Father’s Office in Santa Monica and Culver City.
The half-order of fries I can recommend unreservedly. They come in a paper cone with three dipping sauces. The sauces are OK; the fries are amazing.
As for the beers, the Abbey has some 30 Belgian beers on tap. This is apparently A Big Deal in the beer community, Belgian beer being considered among the best and having it on tap being a rarity. There’s no beer list, annoyingly, so you may be hard-pressed to know what to get. My friend tried a couple and liked them. Beer doesn’t appeal to me and a sip of one didn’t change my mind.
But if you’re into it, Back Abbey is almost like a wine bar for beer. It’s very non-909 and Claremont’s lucky to have it. The clientele ranged from the 20s into the 60s that night, and it will be interesting to see this fall if Claremont Colleges students adopt the place and its $7 to $9 beers or whether it remains more of a beer snob/foodie hotspot.
About my only criticism is that it’s very LOUD. It’s not TVs, it’s not music, it’s just conversation that makes the interior almost as noisy as a nightclub. I don’t know if there’s anything to be done about it, other than timing your visit to off-hours.
Update 2016: I go here two or three times a year and have yet to have a bad meal. At lunch on a weekday, it’s sedate, and there’s a nice outdoor seating area too.