The logo for Newport Beach’s Helmsman Ale House is a sea captain with a beard of tentacles gripping a ship’s wheel. I don’t know what his official name is, but I can’t think of a better mascot for Mario Marovic’s Newport Beach-based Lounge Group. It reminds you that the company’s own tentacles reach as far as downtown Fullerton with Matador Cantina and steer as many as 11 restaurants throughout Orange County.
Lounge Group commands an armada of some of the most successful eateries in the area. When the Country Club and later Playa Mesa opened, I saw the organization’s strategy in action: buy up older establishments in prime locations, revitalize them with a remodel, then let customers rediscover them. So when Newport Beach Brewing Co. was put up for sale, it didn’t surprise me that Marovic and partner Andrew Gabriel swooped in to add it to their fleet. Pumping new life into graying properties, especially beloved local watering holes such as this one, is their modus operandi. And with a winning streak that includes Stag Bar and Wild Goose Tavern proving the formula works, Lounge Group has become to bars in Orange County as Pixar is to cartoons in Hollywood.
But the old Newport Beach Brewing space—with 4,200 square feet and the capacity to produce about a dozen craft beers—represents something new for the company. Here, Marovic and crew are not only serving alcohol, but they’re also creating it. To do the job at the 15-barrel facility, Marovic and Gabriel hired brewmaster Dylan Mobley, who was previously at Stone Brewing Co., Angel City Brewery and Bottle Logic Brewing. So far, Mobley has made five house beers, including an oyster stout the color of motor oil that involved 20 pounds of East Coast oysters. Beers from craft breweries near and far fill in the rest of a draft-beer roster that changes from day to day.
To helm the kitchen, Lounge Group brought in Zach Scherer, the chef from the Country Club. His menu should not surprise anyone who has been to a microbrewery in the past decade or a pub in the past half-century. I think that’s the point. Both new customers and Newport Beach Brewing’s regulars can feel at ease. This is a place where you play a round of darts, then eat a burger or fish and chips, all with a frosty glass of beer in hand. In fact, you can still get an oversized pretzel just as you could at the old place. And when you’re feeling nostalgic for pickled eggs—the most iconic bar food of all—there’s not just one way to take it, but two. For the reasonable price of $4, Helmsman offers them deviled, an idea whose time has come, with the halved whites pink-hued and acting as rafts for a piped-in yolk that’s bright and spicy.
The burger, however, was just another bar burger, kind of forgettable despite the fancy bibb lettuce, grilled onions, house sauce, tomato and American cheese. It’s all tucked inside a glossy brioche bun that’s labeled as vegan. And if you opt to have the dry-aged beef patty cooked any degree above medium, you might even say it’s tough. The fries were another matter. Light and reedy, they’re the best part of not only the burger plate, but also the chicken schnitzel. The latter—a giant, flattened piece of chicken breast breaded and unevenly pan-fried—reminded me of chicken nuggets, but not fondly.
A better use for the fries was to soak up the white-wine broth of the steamed mussels. And you’ll do exactly that when you realize the tiny piece of toasted bread they give you to dip into the soup isn’t nearly enough.
Because this is Newport Beach and not Newport, Wales, there are three kinds of tacos: a tri-tip, a fish taco labeled “SoCal,” and a mushroom barbacoa for vegetarians. Trendy restaurant tropes of avocado toast and crispy Brussels sprouts also make an appearance. But like the mythical Kraken, an ice cream-stuffed Monte Cristo seemed to have come from the imagination of someone who clearly likes to spin a good yarn. The dessert was deep-fried like a county-fair confection, then draped in enough compote to count as a serving of fruit; it was more like cold bread pudding than the fried ice cream I was expecting.
I did see more salads than should be allowed in a place like this—something the tentacle-bearded sea captain would surely dismiss as lily-livered landlubber food. And when you’re deep inside the belly of Helmsman Ale House, marvelling at the stained glass and the original arched, wood-beam ceilings that make you feel as if you’ve been swallowed by the hull of an ancient schooner, salad seems a silly thing to eat, especially while you’re chugging a pint.
Helmsman Ale House, 2920 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, (949) 220-9977; helmsmanalehouse.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Appetizers, $2-$14; entrées, $8-$19. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.