Monday, June 17, 2024

Port City Tavern’s literary-centric cocktail menu proves its one of Long Beach’s coolest bars

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Port City Tavern, the Eastside’s highbrow-meets-lowbrow bar that was once Iguana Kelly’s, is becoming one of Long Beach’s most creative cocktail spaces, allowing its array of bartenders to explore their creativity in ways that few, if any, bars are doing.

Just take a look at their latest menu of libations: From “Catcher in the Rye” and “Curious George” to “Holes” and “The Hobbit,” Port City asked their concoction creators to write a liquid poem to their favorite books.

Port City Tavern’s dive into books follows an existing dedication to special menus

Let’s just be honest: the 2023 holiday brought in the largest influx of bars wanting to hop onto the train that was largely started by The Ordinarie when it introduced Miracle in 2019. From Bamboo Bar’s take on Americana Christmas and The Attic serving house-made mulled wine and eggnog to places like the queer-centric Beach Garden space and the zero-proof spot that is Shirley’s Temple chiming in on the holiday.

Port City Tavern was no exception.

“We’ve been doing holiday cocktails for quite a while now,” said bar manager Bradley Eston, who has long been in the local bar industry since the opening days of Padre in Downtown Long Beach, who has also happily taken on the roles of other responsibilities at Port City: “You can also call me event coordinator, bartender, barback, beverage director, janitor, sometimes plumber,” he said laughing.

For Eston, his staff is what is clutch: Having worked under some of the best mixologists in the city, from working as a barback under Long Beach’s original craft cocktail master Daniel Flores to the likes of Nathan McCullough, now at rightfully acclaimed Wolves in DTLA, who headed Padre’s bar in its prime and led Mezcalero to its success. These experiences have allowed Eston to learned to take what he enveloped as a once-upon-a-time apprentice and then focus it on leadership. And this has resulted in him creating his a team that he can both hone in terms of skill and trust in terms of creativity.

“Learning about the books was one of the coolest parts and figuring out how to incorporate them into the drinks beyond just the drink itself,” Eston said, gesturing to a matte mod podge coaster made for the drink based on “Calvin,” a young adult novel that plays with the idea that Calvin from “Calvin & Hobbes,” was a schizophrenic in the creation of his tiger friend—and that schizophrenia has been passed onto the book’s titular character. “And each one of the bartenders came with really fleshed out, great ideas.”

port city tavern
This “Calvin & Hobbes” inspired cocktail mixes tequila and cold brew coffee. Photo by Brian Addison.

Port City Tavern’s choice of talent is how and why they choose to tackle high-brow concepts while maintaining a lack of pretense

“My staff is amazing,” Eston said. “My barbacks? They can make falernum, orgeat—they’re doing good things because we encourage that. We’re proud of that.”

Take a glance at Marilyn Fitoria’s creation: One of Eston’s most charismatic and stylish bartenders, her “Alice in Wonderland”-inspired concoction is not just a wildly fruity-bordering-paloma mixture of tequila and grapefruit shrub, it is a captivating cocktail that matches the charm of its creator.

A cute little “Drink Me” tag attached at the bottom, the drink is capped off with a flower and the lighting of a sage joint that gives off 420 vibes and easily makes one giggle. It’s unpretentious yet fully thought out, dangerously drinkable but well-made, child-like fun but for adults.

“Bradley is so engaging and eloquent when he talks about cocktails,” Fitoria said. “And he also understands how the love of my acting craft can segue into my love of cocktail crafting. I can make money, express myself creatively in ways that translates into so many other areas, and learn from him—it’s a win-win.”

That comes from Eston’s background: In his early 20s, while working at Padre, he admitted he demoted himself to let McCullough come in and mentor him—something few young people are either humble enough or even willing to do without some deep sense of lost pride. And it wasn’t that Eston, at the time he was hired, was simply efficient at making Jack’n’Cokes: He had made his own stylized ice, his own tinctures, his own shrubs, he had trained people before…

“But Nathan [McCullough] pulled up with this fully fleshed out cocktail menu,” Eston said. “Everything was so dialed in. And I knew I wanted to work under him… All those experiences have added up and it’s genuinely nice to see that work come to a space like this, where I can show off not just what I know but my team as well.”

Port City Tavern balances allowing their bartenders to express creatively while also maintaining itself as Long Beach bar that caters to the PBR and well-drink crowd

That sense of knowing one can learn and where one can lead is where Eston’s strength comes in, especially given the move of Port City Tavern away from the skeleton of Iguana Kelly’s—the bar that was there before and whose specter still lingers when the rare guest decides to bring it up in true self-induced-allergy to change that old school Long Beachers sometimes inflict on themselves.

“I want to stay clear of that L.A. or New York vibe,” Eston said. “There’s nothing more off-putting for Long Beach than being pretentious. We’re not pretentious—you can still order a PBR for five bucks. And even then, we still have guys coming in here saying, ‘You fucked things up.’ And I want to often say, ‘So sorry we fixed the bathrooms and scrubbed the shitty graffiti off the wall.'”

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It’s hard not to laugh and find some sense of honor in Eston’s brutal honesty—but he is right, despite the naysayers and aging critics: a classic tall boy only runs you $5 and there are an array of basic things that Port City (like its little sister, Baby Gee) offer on the regular for absurdly solid prices. And sure, some ordered special cocktails but many patrons stuck to their well-drinks. And that is okay.

But that won’t hinder Eston from pushing Port City Tavern forward.

“I was good friends with Omar [Rodriguez] when he was at The Grasshopper and he was a great person to bounce ideas off of, to keep up this idea that Long Beach has the talent—we just don’t cultivate it,” Eston said. “And I am going to keep that spirit alive here. We’ll keep churning out seasonal menus and still be chill. We’re still Long Beach.”

Amen. I’ll take that 12-year Scotch and a PBR.

Port City Tavern is located at 4306 Anaheim St.

Editor’s note: This article originally stated Port City Tavern is located in the Zaferia neighborhood; this has been corrected.

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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