“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut,” reads the Ernest Hemingway quote scrawled on the sidewalk chalkboard outside Hopscotch Tavern. Another blackboard touts the blue-collar special at this downtown Fullerton rookie watering hole: “beer, whiskey, and cigar” for $15.
Open since November, Hopscotch is as unabashedly keen on booze as its name and its bar-studded ’hood imply. What sets it apart is its focus on whiskey—or “brown spirits” in wonk parlance—and the affable vibe and vintage digs. It might be two short blocks from Harbor Boulevard, but this is a respite from the hard-partying, shot-slamming weekend hordes. It’s also a restaurant that dishes hearty fare every day, and brunch on weekends.
Compared to the bar’s prodigious selection of 100 craft beers and more than 110 whiskeys, the food menu feels tightly finite, with options that tilt to brawny animal proteins, savory carbs, and fried finger foods—dishes that not only complement beer and cocktails, but supply a soft landing for fermented, high-proof libations.
Pork and beef, cooked low and slow, anchor the all-day menu of entrees, burgers, and sandwiches. These goods aren’t so much cooked to order as assembled to order, by a team that includes Bryan Gonzalez, Rob Marshall, and Cody Storts. At this writing, a handful of chefs has come and gone, but it’s worth noting that the menu has remained steady over the course of four visits, and I’ll give them points for not banging the seasonality drum—barbecue ribs, pork belly and beans, sloppy Joes, and mac ’n’ cheese skillet are all but devoid of ingredients available at the weekly farmers market.
Sweet potato fritters, a pleasing, shareable starter, easily ranks as a top dish. Four spiky pillows of fried sweet potato are lashed with maple-cayenne butter. Deviled eggs are copiously seasoned and properly cooked, but why five and not six? Mac ’n’ cheese in a mini iron skillet is a sad, pale affair with soft shell pasta in a loose, drippy sauce that needs less milk, more cheese, and a fat pinch of know-how.
After a few visits, I understand why waiters repeatedly leave the kitchen with big burgers, steak knives jutting upright from the tall heaps. These are bold, satisfying stacks that start with a beefy patty with a brawny texture, a base that stands up to assertive toppings. Two that offer high-intensity flavor are The Duke and Blue Roan. The Duke’s patty is stuffed with cheddar before grilling, then topped with pulled-pork plus bacon, American cheese, and crisp sheaves of romaine. It’s an unruly handful, so hold on tight. On the Blue Roan burger, Danish blue cheese, milder than French or Gorgonzola but still sharp-salty, is the seducer, and the aromatic fresh arugula and reasonably tame horseradish aioli add restrained punch. Steak fries by the bag are mightily seasoned; some are crunchy and others not, but they have a fresh-fried greasy goodness—when they’re hot, that is.
Here, hot food often arrives barely warm, or worse yet, room temperature. Crispy fried red onion strings are worth fighting over when moments out of the fryer, but sometimes arrive cold, yielding insipid strands of greasy onion. Crunchy batter on buttermilk fried chicken wings (incorrectly labeled “drums,” as in drumsticks) breaks away in sheets from the bird’s tepid meat and unyielding joints.
The hefty bacon-wrapped meatloaf is a far more successful dish, the house-beef grind amped with a gutsy dose of sausage. Slow cooking under a red shellac of sweet, tangy, tomato-rich sauce lends nostalgic allure. And good scallion mashers are the perfect side, though I wish those tender glazed carrots were bigger or more plentiful.
Weekend brunch doesn’t thrill. Chilequiles is a motley pile of sauteed chips in pureed salsa that lacks deep flavor. I found myself salvaging the eggs from the chaos. Biscuits and gravy arrive cool and taste like dough lumps under a gummy blanket. Thankfully the regular menu also is available during breakfast service.
Despite the kitchen’s foibles, business is steady, the plaid-shirt crew is upbeat and helpful, and the massive bar’s shelves are filled with amber-hued bottles. Cool and classic tracks are the eclectic playlist that, imagine this, doesn’t overpower conversation. Rustic and chic-averse, this revamp of Fullerton’s 1918 Mission Revival-style Pacific Electric Depot exploits humble materials. Unsanded stained wood, concrete floors, and a polished bar top from reclaimed barrel staves create an accessible, low-key ambience, along with an elevated patio that’s dotted with umbrellas and upcycled barrel stables. It’s a patent departure from the genteel, white tablecloth dining of former longtime tenant Spadra, once known as Il Ghiotto.
Hopscotch Tavern isn’t a fine restaurant, but it’s a likable roadhouse with specific charms, where most every visitor has a beer, cocktail, or dram of whiskey. Look around and you’ll see diners wrestling megaburgers or digging into something messy. Clearly, winning the game here requires skipping the wrong squares and landing on just the right spots.
White Manhattan, Morning Glory, Barrel Roll craft cocktails, sweet potato fritters, red onion strings, The Duke burger, Blue Roan burger, bacon-wrapped meatloaf, St. Louis Ribs, Pac Mac pulled-pork sandwich, Thai Cobb salad.
Bites and sides, $3 to $8; salads, burgers, and sandwiches, $8 to $12; entrees, $13 to $19; specialty cocktails, $10.
Wine lovers, prepare to be disappointed with a lean 10-bottle selection.
Smokers can buy cigars or light up their own on a designated patio.
136 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, 714-871-2222, hopscotchtavern.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.