Restaurant of the Week: Beer Belly Deli

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Beer Belly Deli, 590 W. 1st St. (in Packinghouse), Claremont

The location is less obvious than a beer belly, being tucked away in an interior corner of the Claremont Packinghouse, able to be found only through directional signage. Owned by the people previously behind the popular T Phillips Alehouse in La Verne, Beer Belly Deli is not a delicatessen, but a casual hangout spot with lots of beers — a dozen on tap and 50 in bottles — and sandwiches.

It’s a neat space, with high ceilings, a skylight, high-top and low tables, lots of wood and an attic-like space with clocks, trunks and other antique-y items visible.

I’ve eaten here twice since its opening last month and had two very different experiences.

When you walk in — and there are two entrances, incidentally — it’s not clear what you’re supposed to do. The first time, for a late dinner, we were quickly invited to sit wherever we liked. Service was prompt, professional and discreet. We split a flatbread with artichoke and roasted tomatoes ($10), tasty and the perfect amount of food for a light dinner. My friend got a Duvel beer ($9) and said it’s a hard one to find on tap. (I had an ice water and found it light and refreshing.)

I returned a few days later for lunch so I could try a sandwich. Well. It was 2 p.m. on a moderately busy Saturday, and the staff seemed overmatched, based on the poor service and shouts from the kitchen about food waiting to be delivered.

I seated myself at one of the communal tables, no employees being in sight. After five minutes, with no help forthcoming, I flagged one down to order an iced tea and request a menu. I got them, but that was the last I saw of him. Meanwhile, a family of five essentially surrounded me at the communal table — was there really nowhere else to sit? — and I volunteered to move down a few seats so they could sit together and not talk over me and my magazine.

When their order was taken, I got the server’s attention (25 minutes after my menu was delivered) and tried to order a pulled pork sandwich — which they were out of. I changed that to a reuben (misspelled “ruben” on the menu) and hoped for the best.

The stranger opposite me said he’d ordered a reuben 50 minutes earlier and still hadn’t received it. “This is going in my review!” he said. (I think he has a blog.) Ten minutes later he complained and a server said his sandwich was almost done; he canceled his order. She returned and said his two beers would be on the house and he was given a $20 gift card. He told me he hadn’t had any intention of ever coming back but that maybe now he would.

A reuben soon arrived. This was within 15 minutes of my order, an acceptable amount of time, although I’m not so sure it wasn’t the other guy’s reuben. (I didn’t notice until the bill came and it specified “no cheese” that mine hadn’t had cheese. Someone ordered it that way, but not me.) Helping salvage the meal, the sandwich ($12) was pretty good: not enormous, but generous with the corned beef, and served on a tasty marbled rye. Reubens aren’t easy to find in these parts and this might be the best I’ve had in the area.

The bill also charged me $1.50 for my side of fruit, even though the menu didn’t specify an upcharge for any sides from the list that come free. A server said that should have been explained and removed the charge.

I’d have complained about the whole experience (which is very unlike me) but it didn’t seem fair to get my bill waived and then write an honest piece here. So I paid my bill.

You have to expect some kinks when a restaurant opens; that’s the tradeoff for trying a place early. This was a perfect storm of kinks, though, even if you have to think the owners’ track record means the place will soon have its act together.

Would I return? Based on the first experience, yes; based on the second, no. So, maybe, but not right now. If you’re interested in trying it, you might enjoy it, but be prepared to assert yourself simply to be waited on.

* Update, March 2014: A going-away dinner for a colleague took place here. Service was good for a Saturday night and three tables of 26 people. I had a mushroom and goat cheese burger ($13), which was only okay, tasting like a pre-made patty and sliding around and off the outmatched potato bun. To be fair, another friend had the same thing and thought it was great. A friend who’s a veteran of these Restaurant of the Weeks had a veggie stack and wasn’t impressed. So, this place is a fun night out, comfortable, but the food is variable.

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  • Ramona

    They must be doing something right. I see several beer bellies in the photo.

    • davidallen909

      Ha!

  • DebB

    Both your photos are making my mouth water! Is this a sports bar? If so, you might have seen my Dodgers blow out your hometown team last night – 13-4. It’s really kind of amazing to me, because they started the year out soooo badly! Are you a baseball fan?

    • davidallen909

      I notice you didn’t mention how my hometown team broke the Dodgers’ streak the night before! I’m not really a fan, but I have a mild interest. There are a couple of TVs at the bar, silently showing sports, but BBD isn’t a sports bar.

      • DebB

        Well, thanks to the war between Time Warner and CBS, I didn’t get to see that game, so it doesn’t count!

  • J Paul Latham

    WOW! and located amongst Claremont’s finest too. Won’t last at this rate. Food looks range from mediocre to regurgitated. Can get 50 beers at Trader Joe’s or BEVMO. If it’s ambiance you want and need to be in the Packing House environ, try one of the neighbors and bring your appetite. Sorry BBD!

  • Mike from La Verne

    Pretty much the same service we were experiencing when they were in La Verne as T-Phillips. Some nights the service was outstanding. Other nights, the service was poor. I always thought the “server-by-committee” was the issue. Are they still serving that way or have they gone to a dedicated server?

    • davidallen909

      Interesting! It seemed to be by committee…I had a man, a woman, a second woman, a second man and then the first man. I didn’t know who I was tipping (poorly).

  • Ramona

    I see by today’s DB that Elaine Lehman enjoyed her Beer Belly Deli experience. Raves about food and service in her column “Lunch with Lainey”

    Last paragraph: “The service was excellent, the food was awesome . . .”

    and she then recommends we all make a visit to BEAR Belly Deli.

    Beer belly. Bear belly. It’s all the same to me.

    • davidallen909

      Maybe she’d had one beer too many.

  • dadwheels

    Had a pretty similar experience to your 2nd experience but since they’d only been open 3 days, I thought it might just be opening jitters. Got a lot more, better, and cheaper at the T. Phillips in Monrovia. Hope they can get it together soon…until then, I’ll just go next door to Eureka!

  • Bob Terry

    Did nobody notice that Lainey had a “veggie stack” sandwich there for $10.95! And right down the street are the $4.00 street tacos. The hector…I mean reuben, sandwich looked quite tasty but Gandolfo’s has one for almost half that price but no 50 beers. I bet you got the last marble rye, too! Anyway, back to me beefarino while I install my new shaower head.

    • davidallen909

      None of those places has a big salad, though. (When Bob and I get together on the blog, Seinfeld references abound. Speaking of which, I was chatting with a firefighter after last night’s Upland council meeting, and he was now sporting a mustache. I brought up the episode that begins with Jerry and George both having grown mustaches that summer out of boredom.)

      Yeah, nothing at Beer Belly seems to be under $10, even the appetizers.

  • Bob Terry

    Well, I hope that firefighter has good “hair” genes… but just hope he uses Barbasol instead of butter when he finally decides to shave it off.

  • Ronald Scott

    My wife and I enjoy coming here, we have made it our Wednesday night ritual since that is trivia night. We have never had an issue with service and the food has always been good. We will be there Wednesday night to defend our trivia championship

    • davidallen909

      Good to know. I was there on a Tuesday night and had no problem with service, as mentioned above. But oh, that weekend lunch…!