A tasty plate of history
Everything about Redondo’s The Bull Pen is from another era
I used to be an avid historical reenactor, demonstrating skills like woodfire cooking, baking, and traditional brewing. My closet contains costumes from various eras, some with stains and scorch marks from feasts of decades ago, and my kitchen cabinet has cookware that I crafted on a potter’s wheel and pewter forge. It can be thrilling to make something precisely as your ancestors did, and gives a food writer a personal perspective on the labor involved in hand-milling grain, butchering an animal, and maintaining a cookfire you started with flint and steel.
The perfect environment for a historic meal is one that recreates the culture and era, so the diner has the illusion of inhabiting a different time and space. That usually involves set dressing, but occasionally it’s possible to find a place built in another time and unchanged. There are a few in the South Bay like Old Tony’s, the San Franciscan, and Ercole’s. But The Bull Pen is a special case. The other places on that list retained the original style in original locations, but the Bull Pen has moved three times and still looks much like the original from 1948. Step inside the otherwise unremarkable strip mall location and you go back 75 years to an era when the piano bar was hip, the martini was king, and servers in ties made salads tableside.
The menu was simple in the early days, and it’s still simple, with steaks and accompaniments as the centerpieces. Two chicken dishes and three fish items are also there, but this is one of the only restaurants to have no Impossible burger or other meat substitute. There was no vegetarian entree in ’48, and there still isn’t. The lone, remotely modern item on the menu is a “Cajun” style steak, and that’s only an update from the 1980s.
Meals start with warm bread and butter, and continue with the soup or salad included with every entree that isn’t also a salad. The bread is nothing special, but is something to nibble while you decide, and the salad is just romaine and red lettuce with dressing and pickled beets. When we asked whether these were pickled in-house, a server responded that they open the can in house, which was probably also how this was done in the old days. The dressings are made in the kitchen and taste like it, and the blue cheese and thousand island are standouts.
The soup changes from day to day, and when I ordered one the special was chicken-vegetable. It was simple and hearty, grandma style. The cocktails were also made in the old school style, strong and simple. Don’t expect modern mixology here, just order a martini or Manhattan knowing they’ll be made with middle shelf booze and topped with a lurid pink cherry. The Bull Pen’s wine list hasn’t stayed true to the original, which is a good thing – that old menu by the bar lists four selections, Pinot Noir, Burgundy, vin rose, and “for the gourmet touch,” Chablis. A modern sommelier who recommended a Chablis to complement a steak would be drummed out of the profession, possibly with some elaborate ritual that includes shattering their tasting glass and publicly burning their certificate. Eight whites and eleven reds are offered, most by the bottle or glass, so you’ll probably find something you like.
It’s not really necessary to order appetizers here because the meal portions are substantial, but on one trip we tried onion rings because my wife always enjoys them. They arrived fast and hot with a thick, crunchy coating that is unlike the modern tempura style, but that’s no surprise. I think they might have been better if the onions were thin cut rather than thick, but that’s a matter of taste.
Steaks are of course the special here, and they’re generously portioned, lightly seasoned, and grilled by pros who can calculate the cooking time for medium rare down to the millisecond. They arrive with your choice of starch: baked or garlic mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, rice pilaf, or steamed vegetables. The mac & cheese is the very creamy variety that has spent just a moment under the broiler, not the more cheddary baked style with the crisp crust on top. Some people have strong preferences for one or the other, but I eat both. This was all about creamy richness, and is a little much as an accompaniment to a big steak. Some bitter vegetables like brussels sprouts would balance the plate, and green beans, the usual daily veg here, are the most likely alternative. The baked potato is the usual loaded spud with a mountain of sour cream and chives, about which not much can be said except that it was as it was supposed to be.
The non steak entrees we tried were the pan-seared sea bass, beef medallions in wine sauce, and their famously popular burger. That burger has been recommended to me many times, but I don’t find anything particularly extraordinary about it. It’s a good-sized patty that mysteriously has little char flavor, topped with mayo, lettuce, tomato, and pickles. I think I might have liked it better with their thousand island dressing. It comes with crisp fries and soup or salad for 20 bucks, which is a good deal, but I liked the other entrees better.
Our server recommended the filet mignon tips and mushrooms in a white wine and garlic butter sauce, and got points for mentioning that since it keeps cooking in the hot sauce, if I like it medium rare I should order it rare. On this particular day the sauce was warm rather than bubbling hot, so it was good that I don’t mind my beef rare. When I mentioned this to her, she apologized profusely and offered to take it back to the kitchen to be heated, but I decided I’d just enjoy it as it was. I wish I had ordered the rice pilaf so I could mop up all the delicious sauce, and if you get this dish then you may learn from my experience.
The sea bass was a relatively small portion but sufficient alongside the massive baked potato. It had been sauteed in a honey-citrus butter and was topped by more butter, so if you ordered fish as a heart-healthy regimen this is not the right choice. It was, however, very tasty, and my wife polished it off happily.
We only tried one dessert, the bread pudding, which was made in the soft rather than crisp style and arrived hot, and topped with a cinnamon butter sauce. I would have preferred that sauce on the side, but it was good just as it showed up. It is usually served with ice cream on top, but our server recommended having the ice cream on the side and she was right.
The Bull Pen has a reputation for attracting an older crowd, but on both visits, there was a mix of ages. Perhaps they’ve been coming here since they were children and it’s their favorite hang, perhaps they approach the place the way the audience at reenactments does. Either way they seemed to appreciate it. The Bull Pen is the antidote to faddism, and if that’s what you like, this is your dream destination.
The Bull Pen is at 314 Avenue I in Redondo Beach. Open Tues.– Sun. at 4 p.m. Close 10 p.m. , except Fri. and Sun. at 1:30 a.m.
Tu-Thu and Su, 1:30 a.m. Parking lot. Wheelchair access OK. Reservations highly recommended, (310) 375-7797. Menu at thebullpenredondo.com. ER