At First It’s Rough, Then It’s Sweet
By Bill Gerdes
Brass Key may not be voted best dressed, but it makes up for it in personality
It looks like a derelict’s crash pad from the outside. Or a Lego house made by a 6-year-old who had only off-putting-faded-tan-bricks to work with. Or maybe it’s an old biker club from back in the day; perhaps the Mongols or the Angels cracked beers and skulls here once. Whatever it is the outer façade of the Brass Key Bar and Grill seems designed to repel customers, not attract them. And even out here in the nether regions of San Bernardino called Highland, it stands out as an unappealing eyesore.
Then one goes inside. The inside of the Brass Key is different. People laugh, talk and drink. All seems happy, convivial, fun. Premier League Soccer coexists happily with the KCAL 9 “News Team” on the spattering of TV’s that sit overhead the room. Our waitress is out of central casting: wise-cracking-seen-it-all-charmer with a heart of gold. Is the Brass Key a secret club? Does the outside function to keep away the uninitiated, the unhip, the outsider?
Probably not. But I’m relieved as hell after we walk through the doors. That has to be the emotion of most who walk into the Brass Key, that “oh, thank god” moment when you realize maybe this won’t be so terrible, that the worst you might have to face is a hangover, not a chain-whipping.
Now, so far the Brass Key may not sound like much, but it is fun, fun in a 1974, smoke, drink and eat too much sort of way. It skews older. If you go, you may be the only person who wasn’t alive in 74. If your local old-man bar has been overrun by hipsters soaking in its irony and asking why they don’t have Bon Iver on the Jukebox, run—don’t walk to the Brass Key. It’s cheap drinks, sailor tattoos and dark lighting.
The food? I’m not going to bullshit you—it’s okay bar food and well that’s fine right. Ketchup is not meant to be infused with mango. And sometimes a burger is just a burger. I started off with a house salad, which with its chopped tomatoes, shredded carrots and a solitary fresh beet was far better than the handful of bag-salad I was expecting. And the burgers are tasty, big on the beefsteak tomato, and large lettuce leaves—they’re the anti-$14 artisan burger that are popping up on menus everywhere. Some pricey burgers are worth it—at seven bucks this one certainly is.
I went for the Chicken Cordon Bleu (interesting, with a strange comfort-food quality) for two reasons: one it was fun to order an allegedly French dish in a place about as far from Lyon as I can imagine, and two it also was a huge dish in the ’70s. And the Brass Key is the ’70s, except for the soccer, and the Boca burger and spinach salad with goat cheese on the menu. They’ve got beer buckets and drink specials and food specials I didn’t pay attention to cause I was checking out the bar action. The Brass Key won’t make any top-10 dining list, but it’s still bitchin‘.
Brass Key Bar & Grill, 2649 Highland Ave. Highland, (909) 863-7782; www.brasskeybarandgrill.com. Mon-Tue and Sat, 11am-2pm; Wed-Fri, 11am-12am; Sun, 10am-6pm. D, MC, V.