Ercole’s then as now
The South Bay’s arguably oldest restaurant may also outlive all of its contemporaries.
At a recent party, someone asked which was the oldest restaurant in the South Bay, and I told her it was Ercole’s in Manhattan Beach. I gave a few details – the founding in 1927 as a family restaurant, gradual evolution into a bar, brief period serving Indonesian food in the 1960s, and return to being a bar again. She took it all in and asked, “Sounds like an interesting place. I’d like to read your review. When did it come out?”
At this point it occurred to me that despite writing about local restaurants for over 30 years, I had never reviewed Ercole’s. I had excuses for this, but none of them were particularly good. It was a bar that served food, I have reviewed those before. The place has a tiny menu, but last year I reviewed a restaurant that serves only two things. It was obviously time to review Ercole’s.
I had been there before, usually with out of town visitors who might enjoy an authentic beach dive. And it is that, a dim, shabby hangout where regulars and a smattering of outsiders drink, banter, ignore the TV’s, drink more, share stories, and then have another drink. There are dusty bottles of questionable booze on the top shelves, standard bar pours below, though of late some premium brands have been creeping in. The specials board always seems to be the same, a Moscow mule or a mai tai, and you’ll see those being poured all night. The drinks are strong and cheap by local standards, and you would be well advised to have something in your stomach before you have one.
Which is where the food at Ercole’s comes in. A menu on the wall from the 1930s offers steaks, lobster, and spaghetti, presumably from a larger kitchen than they have now. The current cooking equipment consists of an old grill and a bun warmer, and that’s all. The current menu is exactly what you expect: burgers, a chicken sandwich, hot dogs, Louisiana sausage, and a veggie burger. Tacos are available on Tuesday and Thursday, and there is sauerkraut or chili for the hot dogs on Monday, but that’s it. This might even overstate what people actually eat here, because on multiple visits I have never seen anybody order a chicken or veggie burger. A server insisted that it does happen, but has personally only seen burgers, dogs, and tacos.
Those burgers dominate because they really are good, made with freshly ground beef from Manhattan Meat Market next door, and given a nice char from that grill. If you feel like being fancy you can order your burger with bacon, gouda cheese, or arugula. They don’t have any of those things, but based on my experience asking for them will amuse your server. The standard burger comes with “the works,” which in this case means pickle relish, onion, lettuce, tomato, mustard, and ketchup. And no matter how much you might question putting ketchup on a burger, you should try at least one just like that, because it’s a component of a great flavor combination. It’s a meaty, slightly spicy, very messy pile of goodness, with a big pickle on the side so you get your daily requirement of vegetables. There are no fries because there is no fryer, but you get a bag of potato chips. I saw one heretic open the bun and pour some chips on his burger and thought he might be onto something, so I tried it. I don’t recommend it, because it’s just fine without them. This is the best standard American hamburger in the area, and our readers have shown their wisdom by voting it so in multiple Easy Reader Best of the Beach polls. And by the way, it goes very well with a mai tai or a mule.
I am not a big fan of hot dogs so didn’t check those out, but the Louisiana sausage sandwich that I tried hit the spot, too. They give the tube steak some quality time on the grill, so it comes out peppery and smoky with a little char texture. This too goes very well with a mai tai or a mule. They serve the mules in regular glasses rather than those silly little copper mugs. This is much more practical because glass is a better insulator, so your drink stays cold longer. The copper mugs are traditional only because the bartender who invented the drink had bought a bunch of cheap copper mugs and needed some gimmick to use them.
If you’re there on a night they are served, try the tacos. They’re stuffed with grilled steak or chicken that is chopped just before being tossed into tortillas with cheese and lettuce. Two is a decent meal, three would almost be excessive. Having tried enough mai tais and mules, I decided to accompany these with something different. I had been idly gazing at the dusty top shelf bottles when I noticed a rarity, rock and rye. This concoction of rye whisky steeped with sugar, ginger, and lemon peels peaked in popularity around 1900, and I had read about it but never tried the stuff. A little research revealed a cocktail recipe, so I asked for a “Martini Robbins” with gin and vermouth. This was a conceptually interesting pairing, as all three ingredients were originally invented as medicinal tonics. It was a solid flavor pairing too, a richly aromatic sipper with strong herbal notes. If you’re an adventurous tippler and that bottle is still there when you next visit Ercole’s I recommend that you try it.
Dessert is a mai tai or a mule, or whatever else you’re drinking. That could even be a soft drink, because I have seen them consumed by someone who was presumably here for the burgers and ambiance. They’re both top quality, and show why Ercole’s is likely to hit the century mark and just keep going.
Ercole’s is at 1101 Manhattan Avenue in Manhattan Beach. Open 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. Street parking only but you ought to walk or take Lyft. No credit cards, no website, and they don’t seem to ever answer the phone. ER
by Richard Foss