July 29, 2017

Photo Essay: A Vintage Drinking Den In a Historic Irish Cottage (Now Closed, Updated for 2019)

[Update 12/23/19: Sadly, The Vestry ceased operations earlier in 2018, and St. Patrick's Day 2018 was the last day of operation for Tom Bergin's. Fortunately, Tom Bergin's sold to a new owner and reopened in December 2019, though the Vestry is still closed.]

I don't pray anymore, but I can still experience reverence.

And many times, visiting the right kind of building—with, perhaps, cathedral ceilings and heavenly light shining through art glass windows—can feel like going to church.

And that's the experience of climbing up into the attic of what was once known as the Old Horseshoe and Thoroughbred Club, which has just opened up for business for the first time in decades.

The space under that pitched roof was most recently used for offices and storage—but for the last four years, it's been no secret that the historic Irish pub and restaurant had bigger plans for its upstairs.

Since its inception in 1936 and its move to its current location on Fairfax in 1949, the club has also been called "The Old Horseshoe Tavern"—but today, we know it as Tom Bergin's.

AKA The House of Irish Coffee.

And behind a horse-head door knocker on the ground level, you'll find the stairs to its members-only whiskey den, the newly-christened Vestry.

The establishment's current owner (a former regular who scooped up the business when it was for sale in 2013) brought in some church pews for the new speakeasy-style drinkery, but otherwise he's kept the decor relatively understated in its display of historical artifacts.

After all, the whiskey collection on hand can really speak for itself.

It doesn't need a lot of pomp and circumstance—just as the bartenders and whiskey director don't need to grow funny mustaches or wear Prohibition-era costumes.

For someone who appreciates exclusivity and responds passionately to a sense of urgency, drinking at the Vestry—named after the area of a church where a priest changes into and out of his robe and other vestments—is like a religious experience.

Those whiskeys you can only taste at the distilleries that make them? They're at the Vestry. The limited releases and special reserves? The Vestry has got those, too.

The unicorn pours of the rarest and most antique barrel-aged spirits? They're all on the menu at the Vestry, ready to be tasted—as long as you can pony up for the price tag. Some of the most sought-after pours are upwards of $100, even $400, per one-ounce pour. And they're so rare that you're only allowed one pour, per bottle, per night.

Because once those bottles are gone, they're gone.

Of course, for the brown-liquor drinker with less of a collector's mentality and adventurer's spirit, there are plenty of whiskys and whiskeys, bourbons, ryes, scotches, and blends to choose from—and they don't just come from Kentucky bourbon country, Scotland, or Ireland.

You can taste the world through those grain spirits.

Your palate can go galloping through the flavors of distilleries based in California, Colorado, Utah, Tennessee, and beyond.

You can even imbibe the barrel riches from The Green Mountain State, with pours from distillery Whistle Pig—which has collaborated with the Vestry on a twist on the traditional Irish coffee, using barrel-aged Vermont coffee and Vermont maple syrup in addition to the Vermont whiskey and, of course, the heavy cream.

And if that's not enough dessert for you, and you're not ready to mosey down to the cottage's main bar yet, you can get a small, artisanal piece of chocolate in your choice of flavors that were chosen to compliment the beverages being served.

After this weekend, the Vestry will be open to members only. And while I'm not averse to joining a club of kindred spirits, I'm just not privileged enough to afford the annual dues and the hefty price tag of enjoying the stuff that plays hard to get.

So, maybe I'll end up only ever having gone there once. Maybe it will change and allow non-members on slow nights. Maybe the price will go down, or maybe I'll find a benevolent benefactor.

But I'm glad I had that one, ecstatic night there.

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July 25, 2017

There's (Black) Gold Up In Them Thar Hills

I was on my way to see the wildflower "superbloom" at the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

I could see the large swaths of yellow, purple, blue, and orange on the Temblor mountain range in the distance on that day earlier this year—but on my way north through the town of Taft, it was hard to ignore the oil.

This part of southwest Kern County was once a "forest" of oil derricks, with over 7000 of them scattered throughout the area in the 1920s. Back then, they were wooden.

Those original derricks are gone, now, but a 106-foot replica of the Jameson #17 (circa 1917) stands at the West Kern Oil Museum in Taft...

...right above its original well.

On the reproduction rig (circa 2005), all of the functional equipment is actually original—from the calf-wheel (which is essentially a spool for the drilling rope) to the Pitman rod and the walking beam.

In fact, the entire oil museum is essentially a recreation of an old oil camp—a kind of company town for oil drillers, their families, and support staff. It's not far from what you might've found run by oil companies like Berry Petroleum (founded in 1909 by a successful gold miner named C.J. Berry).

Back then, the roads were too poor and the automobiles were too few for the oil drillers to live very far from the fields where they worked.

But what you see there is not altogether the past-tense culture of this part of Kern County...

...since the Midway-Sunset Oil Field (upon which the museum sits) is the largest in California and the top-producing oil field in the Lower 48.

It's been 100 years, but these oil fields are still producing, and there are plenty of pumpjacks (a.k.a. "nodding donkeys") still pumping away.

In fact, Berry Petroleum hit the million-barrel mark just two decades ago, in 1996.

By 2006, the Midway-Sunset Oil Field had produced nearly 3 billion barrels.

And it's estimated that its got more than 500 million barrels of oil left in its reserves to be pumped in the future. (Much of that is currently controlled by Chevron.)

But the "oil camp" at the West Kern Oil Museum, on three acres of land where the Jameson Oil Company considered their well "tapped out" in 1974...

...has been strategically curated to appear abandoned...

...with its rusted relics and its desolate landscape.

Even its exhibits of more modern oil drilling equipment seem to be frozen in time.

Yes, the once-famous gushers have been capped.

And the bones from the McKittrick tar pits have been excavated and carted off somewhere else.

And what remains are former tent houses that date back as early as 1911...

...bunkhouses for the single male oil workers... shops...


...and even a bus stop for schoolchildren.

But here, in this part of Kern County, you might find some "black gold"—that is, California crude— oozing out of the ground all on its own somewhere, no pump needed.

Related Posts:
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Photo Essay: Ventura Oil Refinery, Abandoned - Part 2
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July 24, 2017

Photo Essay: Arto Tile, Made In California

I'd never heard of the company Arto Brick before, but I'd seen its work.

Whether it was the tile restoration at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel or the Spring Street-facing courtyard of Los Angeles City Hall...

... the Ace Hotel or the above-ground pavilion entrance to the Mariachi Plaza subway station in Boyle Heights...

... or the fancy wine bar on Melrose (zinqué) and the fancy taco place that replaced St. Nick's on Third Street (Toca Madera)...

...I'd been surrounded by the company's tile and brickwork since I'd first started coming to LA 17 years ago. I just didn't know it.

Maybe it's because there are so many other tilemakers from Southern California whose names have big marquee value, like Malibu Tile, Catalina Tile, Gladding McBean, and, of course, Batchelder.

Arto, on the other hand, has been both designing and handcrafting bricks, cladding, wall tile, and pavers at its factory in the South Bay city of Gardena for over 50 years now—without the celebrity status.

Its owners and operators, brothers Vod and Armen Alajian, have kept the business feeling like family—even after the 2014 passing of their dad, Arto, the namesake and founder of the company.

Though Arto the man, born and raised in Egypt as a child refugee from the Armenian Genocide, began his career in craftsmanship in Cairo by making leather shoes with his father (Vod and Armen's grandfather), he eventually found his way to the U.S. in 1962.

At one point, Arto did work for the Adamson family (of Malibu Tile fame), but it was delivering milk and not making tiles. It wasn't until later that he started his work in ceramics with his mentor, clay artist, ceramicist, and sculptor Irene Berchtenbreiter.

That's when he turned his new craft into a business—Arto the company—with the help of his brothers, nephews, and whoever else he could wrangle.

And now Vod and Armen (pictured above) have taken the reins and kept the same spirit, employing childhood friends and making their other employees part of the family.

On the factory tour, you can literally see newly-fired floor tiles (like those found at the Roosevelt) drying in the sun, in both the "Mission Red" and "Cotto Gold" colors.

They may look like terra cotta, but the energy crisis in the 1970s forced the company to switch over from clay to concrete.

The art is really in how to make concrete (and now, cement as well) have an "old world" look...

...but also carry the cost savings of a less energy-dependent material (and maintain quality while increasing recycled content).

The artistry is even more evident in the "deco" tiles that the company's design division, Arto Tile Studio, has been producing...

...reviving that classic "California" look of vintage, decorative tile...

...with literally every piece painted by hand.

And that means they can be fully customized with whichever colors and glazes you want—either within their predesigned line drawings or as a completely new design.

Color variation, of course, is inherent in any product that's as handcrafted as these are. But that's what makes any Mission Revival home, Arabesque patio, or Roman-style pool look authentically antique (a.k.a. Antik) and yet very Californian.

Just like real clay, travertine, or limestone, the concrete and cement bricks and tiles are designed to evolve over time—developing a patina that will supposedly "enhance the character of the material" and serve as "a record of the life around it."

Because no matter what you're made of or where you're from, you can't help but have some California rub off on you if you spend enough time here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Before Malibu Was Malibu
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Photo Essay: Tile House, Hollywood Hills
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Photo Essay: Aimee's Castle on the Lake
Photo Essay: Searching for Gold Under Scotty's Castle