Creative Classics at Downtown’s Federal Bar

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Photos by Brian Addison. Gallery below.

As if the cavernous wood-coated space, 1920s charm and contemporary design flourishes weren’t enough to lure folks into the new Federal Bar in Downtown Long Beach, the bar, restaurant and future venue also boasts a diverse-and-affordable menu of inventive gastropub experiments. More than just good looks, the Fed has a massive professional kitchen helmed by Shad Davis, the same executive chef who masterminded upscale offerings for L.A. eateries The Belmont, Rome Italian Cucina and Capitol City before getting tapped to craft the pub-inspired menu at The Federal Bar’s original location, which opened in 2011 in North Hollywood.

For Long Beach, Davis keeps the same assortment of “pass-arounds,” “wraparounds” and “hot diggity dogs” that made Federal Bar an arts-district hotspot——a cheeky list rounded out by burgers, flatbreads and salads that range from comfort food to slow food.

But don’t let the presence of common items fool you——everything at Federal Bar has a clever twist. Instead of traditional fish and chips, the cod is deep fried into little balls called “poppers” (served not with tartar sauce but malt aoli); what looks like an ordinary artichoke dip with bread is actually a dip made from kale and brussel sprouts with pork belly chips; and the meatballs served as an appetizer—which appear at first glance to be similar to those served at nearby Michael’s Pizzeria—are instead amped-up versions of the Italian favorite filled with gooey fresh mozzarella.

Even the charcuterie and cheese plates are set apart from others offered in the Downtown area, each one expertly plated on a quarry-sourced piece of black slate with the names of the diners’ choices identified directly on it with a piece of soapstone pencil.

Simple dishes like the cheese plate are where Davis’ attention to detail is most appreciated. Basic palette cleansers like nuts and fruit are more than just a small bunch of grapes and some almonds from a bag. At a mid-day meal during opening week, the cheese plate came with a sweet early-season strawberry, sliced at the peak of freshness; the honey was placed in a small dish, still oozing from the soft comb; and the walnuts were candied with a hint of cayenne, leaving a subtle cloud of heat in its wake.

For the main course, there’s The Federal— an update on the classic burger so impressive it’s its own proper noun. Cripsy garlic chips, carmelized onions, butter lettuce and black peppercorn aoli top a handformed beef patty all smushed between a buttery brioche bun, creating a mash-up of flavors and textures worth more than its $11 price tag.

Other imaginative twists on the American staple include a habanero burger—with pickled habanero, cayenne crispy onions and an avocado to cut the spice—and a chorizo burger topped with cotija cheese and cilantro aoli. A vegan patty, made with lentils and brown rice, is savory enough for carnivores, a true contender for best vegetarian burger in town.

After washing down a upscale casual meal with a glass of California wine or one of the bar’s 50+ beers (from PBR to Allagash Curieux), it’s hard to believe that Federal Bar resides in the same vast location that used to house The Madison, a steakhouse that existed outside of the price range of most Pine Avenue regulars. Now, with a reasonably priced menu of inspired food, an extensive happy hour selection and a speakeasy-style basement venue on the way, the expertly preserved one-time bank is again a democratic space that is just the latest in Downtown’s foodie Renaissance.

The Federal Bar is located at 102 Pine Ave. (562) 435-2000

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Sarah Bennett is a contributor to the Hi-lo and the editor-at-large at the Long Beach Post. She is also a professor at Santa Ana College where she was once a student before transferring to USC to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Sarah has written about music, art, food and beer in local, national and international publications for over a decade. An L.A. native and longtime resident of Long Beach, she is the co-founder of Long Beach Zine Fest and managing editor at theLAnd magazine. She never sleeps.
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