Monday, April 22, 2024

Altar Society is part of a Downtown Long Beach rebirth—so they’re hosting a crawl to celebrate the other businesses joining them

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As we push toward celebrating Long Beach Food Scene: Last Call—a 10-day, 5-event celebration of our city’s rich bar culture and the people who make it happen—we will offer a series of features that highlight everything from our most stellar cocktail programs at restaurants to to the very events occurring (like this DTLB-centric crawl that explores Altar Society, ISM Brewing, The Stave, and The Ordinarie)… All in order to lift a glass to a social and economic driver that rarely receives the love its deserves: our bar industry. For more information on Long Beach Last Call, click here

Altar Society is one of Downtown Long Beach’s largest spaces, melding a brewery, a bar, a pizzeria, a cafe, and a massive event space into one—and with it, is leading a charge that refuses to believe DTLB can’t and shouldn’t be something spectacular.

“We’re not saying this is something easy,” said co-owner Chris Evans. “People renting out our event space has largely held us up but we know these incoming residents coming into all these new spaces are going to want spaces that belong to them, as are the folks that have stuck around. They deserve that.”

The bold plan Altar Society has for not just itself—but Downtown Long Beach as a whole

For Altar Society, opening in Downtown Long Beach has been an extremely lengthy and arduous process—unlike many of the businesses inheriting existing spaces in Downtown Long Beach and reinventing them nearly on the fly: the now-open (and quite stellar) ISM Brewing, the soon-to-open Broken Spirits Distillery at the former Portuguese Bend Distilling space and the as-of-now-unnamed project from the owners of Padre/Mezcalero at the former Lupe’s space.

Five years in the making and planning, Altar Society is big—like, big.

Not just kinda big but massive, sprawling four levels (if you include the basement), and stretching the entirety of its Pine Avenue-facing entryway to Tribune Court (the alleyway which will eventually be connected to the Promenade via a paseo running under the now-in-construction Broadstone Promenade residential building).

They have a cafe in the back that “used to open at 6AM but we haven’t found the crowd so we open at 7AM,” Evans said—again, bold they even began at 6AM and are willing to stick to 7AM.

They have a pizzeria that they have consistently tinkered with. (More on that below.)

They have a full bar, a feature in a brewery that is rare if not outright unheard of. (And will be a part of Long Beach Last Call.)

They have an event space that is consistently booked since opening thanks to the Convention Center’s consistent programming (and, let’s be honest here: best return-on-investment out of any city programming).

They have a brewery and, with it, someone who is quickly becoming one of the region’s most talented brewers thanks to master brewer Derek Wasak, a Boston native master brewer with a resume that not only cements him as a true beer veteran but will bring both giddiness and smiles across the board from beer lovers in Long Beach.

Altar Society’s openness with the fact that they are consistently fine-tuning is not just refreshing but needed

Oftentimes (and particularly in the age of Constant Surveillance via social media), spaces aim for the impossible: To be perfect in every way, an unhealthy if not outright perturbing approach. And this approach has been fueled by two things: Our rating systems and our online presence.

In terms of rating systems, it is frustrating that if we do not give everything from a phone app to a restaurant a five-star-perfect-score, we are prompted with questions about what was wrong with our experience; this, in turn, fuels us to choose between hyper-poor ratings and hyperbolic ratings without any nuance because, well, we might’ve just had a decent experience. And that is okay.

Add to this our online presence—where we are constantly sharing, constantly seeking validation and feedback, and have the comfort of doing so from behind a screen with zero face-to-face interaction—and you have yourselves small businesses creepily aiming for perfection.

(Kid you not: A reader messaged me about whether it was normal to have a business offer free food after making an honest comment in a thread. No, not a post about the business; a comment within a thread, alluding to the hyper-monitoring business owners go through regarding their business.)

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Altar Society has happily eschewed this: They soft opened with pizza that was mid at best, with co-owner Jon Sweeney admitting that their soft opening was just that: A soft opening.

“I knew the pizza wasn’t where we needed it but I had to get the space open so we could all see it, all learn from it,” Sweeney said. “Since then, we’ve been tinkering away”—and have now begun to churn out some of the most quality and valuable New York-style slices next to Milana’s. (Yes, Altar Society actually sells slices and they’re pretty much $5.)

“There’s things to always fine-tune—and the thing we’re doing the best at right now is beer,” Evans said. “And we’re not afraid to make alterations—for the better, of course—on our staples: Some of our best-sellers has Derek fine-tuning them with more flavor, more depth. You have to be open to adapting, to evolving—even if you haven’t been open a year.”

Their Todos Los Dias—arguably the city’s best Mexican lager? Somehow even better. And Wasak’s experimentations, like his Cafe Campfire? A coffee blonde that is as smooth as it is an ode to s’mores in a cup.

Altar Society is having a hard time finding the ‘every day customer’—so they want to change that

It’s big. It’s bold. And it is something that fits Downtown Long Beach in a sense of sticking-one’s-neck-out for the community: They’ve had investors come and go (thanks to the pandemic)

“The reason we’re here are many—but if you view it from an angle of how we’re trying to a take on a space that many wouldn’t nowadays, well, there’s something to say about Downtown Long Beach and the 40 years I’ve lived here: And that is that Downtown Long Beach is always in transition,” Evans said. “It’s never stopped in being in transition. The question is how we make it stick. And look at the momentum that’s around us.

That momentum includes everything mentioned before: ISM Brewing taking over the former Beachwood space. The Ordinarie continuing one of the city’s best cocktail programs while also offering genuinely solid grub (even late at night). The Stave. The upcoming opening of Broken Spirits. The upcoming opening of the concept from Jay Krymis, the owner of Padre, at the former Lupe’s space.

“Businesses around us have collectively gathered knowing that we have something potentially great on our hands,” Evans said. “And we want to be there to help uplift that.”

And that it is worthy of celebration: Which is why Altar Society will be hosting a Long Beach Food Scene meet-up that will eventually become a crawl, hitting up ISM, The Stave, and ending at The Ordinarie come Mar. 8—all in celebration of Long Beach Last Call.

Wait—what is Long Beach Last Call?

After the success of my restaurant week last year during August, Long Beach Food Scene Week, bar owners and tenders rightfully asked: “What about a week for us?”

So I decided to oblige and present Long Beach Food Scene: Last Call, a ten-day long celebration of Long Beach’s amazing bar culture, it’s even more amazing workers, and the industry that often goes without recognition as one of our city’s largest economic and social drivers. 

Thanks to my collaborators—Scott Lennard of RNDC and Chris Lewis of Nosotros Tequila y Mezcal—we’ve created some 15 events across the ten-day span on Last Call. To say the least, we’ve worked our asses off and we hope you’ll come out and celebrate with us (that is, if we make it to Day 10 alive). This vinyl listening session is but one of 15 across the city during the 10-day celebration.

Altar Society is located at 230 Pine Ave. in Downtown Long Beach and will be hosting a Long Beach Food Scene meetup/crawl on Friday, Mar. 8 that will eventually move onto ISM Brewing, The Stave, and end at The Ordinarie. This event is free. For more information, click here.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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