Should you find yourself in the heart of the Pomona Valley, you’ll quickly discover that you’re in a genuinely lackluster area for restaurants. And yet, there are dining gems to be found for those willing to seek them out, and one of the most sparkling of these, somewhat hidden away in the western sector of Claremont, is The Back Abbey. Even enthusiastic locals would be hard pressed to tell you the name of the street it’s on: 128 N. Oberlin Ave. The Abbey is not very large; in fact, it’s a survivor from the old days (1920’s, I think) when it served as the Union Ice House for the local area. Saved from demolition by an enterprising restauranteur, it’s altogether unremarkable architecturally, save for its western façade, which preserves a chapel-like arched entablature, reminiscent of a small Spanish church … a kind of abbey, if you will.
How to characterize its look? Rough and ready? Rustic? Simple? Unpretentious? I suppose it all of these and more, with several – not all that many – rough, almost unkempt looking tables inside and out, and a long bar fronting an endless array of beers. It’s those beers – a surprisingly full array of Belgian brews on tap, plus a really long list of sometimes recherché bottled beers to fill in any gaps still left on the roster – that attract the crowds, but also the food. Almost anything you order there will be more or less familiar, but there always seems to be a lovely surprise with each dish. Yes, there are several excellent hamburgers, Niman Ranch beef all the way, and sizeable enough to cook to order. But one of them will feature exemplary buns, scattered perhaps with some micro-greens or some grilled mushrooms or perhaps grilled poblanos. The salads are remarkably original and even feature a genuine Salade Lyonnaise, though here they call it simply a Bistro Salad. In France, it’s met regularly, but out the Abbey way, it’s a singular treasure. Check out the Salade Lyonnaise blog in Food By The Glass for more details.
And how about a prosciutto sandwich accompanied by arugula and a strikingly edgy mustard vinaigrette? I never thought about the combination of proscuitto and arugula before, but what a match! If you’re into Belgian beers, why not have one with its logical Belgian companion, steamed and sautéed mussels. The potatoes have been fried in duck fat, so one is reluctant to dilute the delicate flavor of that heart-stopping extra touch, but it comes with an array of three great sauces: horseradish (unusually delicate and fitting), really intense catsup, and, wholly unexpected once again, an herbal remoulade.
Before I forget it, let me mention that, in addition to their wide beer array, the Abbey has a small but seriously selected list of wines with, again, that surprise factor. Chenin Blanc, yes, but it’s a French Vouvray. Cabernet Franc, yes, but it’s a Loire Valley Chinon. The wines by the glass are by far the largest pours I’ve seen in years.
Note: The Back Abbey is open for lunch and dinner every day but Sunday, and does not take reservations. Go and be surprised.