By Selena Lane
Welcome back to our column, "Off-Trend," in which Selena Lane explores the hidden gems of L.A...even those that might not be the trendiest spots of the moment. Selena Lane is a writer living in Los Angeles since 2012. Though her writing focuses mainly on comedy, her bank account and weekends focus mainly on the food and beverage industry. After devoutly following the cool-kid places to eat and drink in LA for four years, Selena has come to realize that there are also plenty of excellent eateries in the area that may not serve avocado toast and aromatic gin cocktails but are still worth a visit—maybe even worth a column. For more of Selena's brilliant writing, follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Remember a time in the LA culinary scene when brussels sprouts were not a menu staple? It’s hard (almost as hard as finding a restaurant now that doesn’t serve them), but Freddy Smalls, however, a bar and kitchen set snugly at the intersection of Exposition and Pico, remembers that time well. It was before 2011, and, not by coincidence, before Freddy’s was one of the original joints to serve the vegetable once admonished as a childhood nightmare, and now hailed as a (cheese-replete) essential side dish and starter. Opening its doors in December 2011, Freddy Smalls was an immediate and inadvertent trendsetter in the best way possible: without pompousness and without compromise. While a newcomer to the West LA gastropub might find the visual elements of the bar familiar, as Freddy Smalls’s deep burgundy leather booths, tinny vintage lamps, old school tile, and full aerial perimeter of diverse whiskeys and spirits have become commonplace in the city, an evening spent here will quickly dispel any comparisons. This place is borne of good food, humble cocktails, and a core love of music, and it’s this trifecta that sets Freddy Smalls apart.
Meat and cheese are paramount on the menu here, and the original partners and chef wouldn’t have it any other way. The bar food is traditional, but rooted in the northeast style of meat and potatoes (which is, of course, paradoxically different than burgers and fries). In addition to the famed brussels sprouts—served fried with house-smoked goat cheese and apple cider glaze—the menu includes items more familiar to a New Yorker than an Angeleno: pecorino meatballs, chicken parmesan with charred broccolini, a French dip with horseradish cream on a toasted onion roll. Don’t worry, there are multiple salads, including a Tuscan kale with pear, fennel, raisins, almonds, and pecorino (this is Los Angeles, after all), but the heart and soul of the kitchen here lies with the simple, familiar, and well-executed.
The drink list is divided between house cocktails (a mix of both recognizable modern drinks and those unique only to Freddy Smalls) and “throwbacks”, a timeline of classic cocktails ranging from the Sazerac (1830) to the Hemingway Daiquiri (1930). While the throwbacks might inspire you to learn a little history with your drink, the house cocktails are where things get interesting. Try the Parsley Gimlet with vodka, cocchi Americano, parsley, and lime, or the White Korean, with scotch, amaro, galliano, cynar, and topped with heavy cream and black salt (excellent as an after dinner drink). Off menu, you can always try one of the rotating barrel aged cocktails, which rest in small barrels behind the bar and change daily. The drinks—like the food—are meant to be accessible, not esoteric, and offer the chance for exploration while still staying close to the roots of classic cocktails and spirits.
While the food and drink at Freddy Smalls are right there in the title (well, if we’re extending it out to include Bar + Kitchen), then the silent third partner in the operation is music. The name Freddy Smalls itself is derived from an imaginary cousin of Biggie Smalls, conceived by the original partners, and the restaurant's foundation of music still remains strong. 90’s-era hip hop is a constant from the sound system, and live music can sometimes be found on the weekends (a couple months ago my Last Word and I was serenaded by a singer-songwriter version of Snoop Dogg’s Gin and Juice). The music aligns well with the old-school feeling of community and welfare, and when combined with the (literal) bar and kitchen, it becomes a challenge to remember a time before Freddy Smalls was one of our go-to spots for an easy plate, sturdy drink, and dance in your seat.