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.