In most European communities the pub, or public house, is a vital part of towns and villages. It is a place for locals to gather and discuss politics, sports, gossip, and of course drink. In some of the really old pubs I’ve been in, the surface of the bar and tables are jagged and cratered by years of serious drinking. The history of those places seeps out from the well worn wood and floats through the dim light into your beers, ciders, or glasses of gin. A real pub is more like church than anything else. One wouldn’t be surprised to find stained glass windows and low hung lights. The similarities are profound when one thinks of humans gathering to commune. The only difference being the pub-flock is more devout and less hypocritical to their cause.
I’ve spent a lot of late nights in the Old Town building on the corner of Raymond Avenue and Mercantile Place. Opened in 1996 by David Farnworth and Peggy Simonian, the pub takes its name from Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin. A nineteenth century real estate tycoon that was no stranger to scandal, he earned the moniker “lucky” by investing, and then forgetting about, some mining endeavors that later turned into a fortune. He is most notably known for founding the original Santa Anita Park, where he continued his “luck” in the horseracing world. You can find Mr. Baldwin’s mark all over town, from Baldwin Hills to the Baldwin Stakes at Santa Anita and of course three pubs in Pasadena and Sierra Madre.
I walked into the pub just past two o’clock in the afternoon. There were only five or six people there. The jukebox was dead, but I prefer a bit of quiet with my beer in the afternoon. The light was coming through the various sports and brewery banners hung on the cross sectioned cream colored windows. The light then spread across the thickly varnished wood and the old brick that seems stained with the history of the place. Much like the windows, the brick walls are plastered with various european flags, antique brewery ads, paint-chipped tavern signs, and dust-covered neon signs that hang skeletal, not glowing. In preparation for Saint Patrick’s Day they already had cheap four leaf clovers taped up on some of the inner arches.
I sat at one of the four high tables across from the bar. The space is small and the bar itself is smaller still, with a fairly new-looking wood top and some brass coat hangers under the lip. With only seven cracked-leather topped stools, most of the night crowd stand or sit at the tables around the bar or out on the patio. Topping the bar is a loft platform with a giant Union Jack thumbtacked up over the space that sags down, ruffling in the breeze that was coming from the open door. You can walk your drinks up the creaking steps to sit on old church pews, to be above it all. I’ve spent more than a few evenings up there talking with good friends.
Behind the bar are more than sixty taps, some slightly crooked, standing high and surrounded by an assortment of different branded glasses, empty and ready. Their tap list has a heavy lean on Belgian and German styles, with a few domestic exceptions, as well as a large collection of bottles. The pub stays true to tradition, hosting a number of European drinking festivals such as their Belgian Beer Festival and Oktoberfest, among others. It’s also one of the few places in this town to get a traditional British meal. I ordered the fish and chips with a Van Steenberge Lucky Baldwins Red Belgian Ale. The red-amber beer was better than the chips, but that’s true to my experience on the various pub-crawls I’ve been on in London.
A man seated behind me in a long coat started complaining that the open door was letting the cold air in. Nobody else seemed to be bothered by it. Eventually he got up and closed the door himself. An old regular chimed in, “Young man, it is only 66 degrees outside.” “I didn’t pay to shiver,” the man said, and he upped his chin and sat, cupping his hand around his stout. This interaction seemed appropriate of the midday crowd at the Old Town location. On the off hours, you get an interesting mix of regulars, die hard soccer fans, and the occasional bar fly. During peak hours, you get a good mix of beer lovers, tourists, and the general mix of partiers from Colorado Blvd packing in every square foot of the place. But in both cases, everyone seems to be pretty congenial most of the time.
More times than not, there is a soccer game on one of the three gigantic flat screen televisions, or, if that didn’t do it for you, the large projection screen on the wall opposite the bar. There is a patio area on Mercantile Place, with its own large screen TV, that is bordered by plants. The fake plastic granite tables and green chairs are not very impressive or comfortable, but they get the job done for the crowds that enjoy their pub fare alfresco. At that hour plumes of smoke rise from exiled smokers on the corner and the jukebox plays loud, but not loud enough to drown out the hum of conversation.
Lucky Baldwins Pub in Old Town serves as a great place to gather with friends. A place to talk. A place to get a bite. A place one might see some of the giants in craft brewing, like Greg Koch of Stone Brewing fame. It’s a place to find and celebrate great Belgian and German style beer. Often it is “First stop, Lucky’s,” and then, who knows. The varnished wood bar in this pub might not be as worn and cratered as some of the East Coast or Old World pubs I’ve been in, but give it time.
Lucky Baldwin’s Pub
17 South Raymond Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91105