Everyone is trying to cash in on the meteoric rise of the craft beer industry. Outside of the highly publicized purchased of craft breweries by the macro-producers (maybe they are just highly publicized in the stuff I read) there is also the growth of the craft beer restaurant. On paper, the concept seems great. Beer and food go together like Southern Tier’s Pumking and pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day (I’m sure there is a better analogy but we are all beer snobs here so why even try). The real challenge is making sure you find a place that hasn’t just thrown together a brewing operation as an attempt to draw in a crowd to a mediocre restaurant.
I’ll admit when I first arrived at the Lazy Dog Cafe in Rancho Cucamonga, California I feared I was entering “Chili’s with a fermenting tank”. It wasn’t as if I was entering the unique location. Lazy Dog has 19 (soon to be 21) locations in California, Texas and Nevada so I was struggling to see how this could be a craft brewery when it was a chain restaurant.
It wasn’t until I had left the brewery and started writing the blog that I learned that the good folks at Lazy Dog Cafe are far smarter than I ever hope to be. It isn’t a “Chili’s with a fermenting tank”. In fact, the place isn’t a Chili’s and it isn’t a brewery. This is a regional restaurant chain that had the good sense to partner with a craft brewer (in this case, Golden Road Brewing out of Los Angeles) to create their own brew their own “house” beer. The result is a chain restaurant that can focus on what they are good at and at the same time offering craft beer under their own label but produced by a brewer that knows what they are doing.
I don’t know why I’m so surprised. This is the kind of thing that restaurants have been doing with wine since the advent of serving wine in restaurants. It makes perfect sense. If you are good at one thing but need another thing to make your thing an even better thing than just pay the people who make the other thing to make the thing for you to improve your thing.
When I first walked into the Lost Dog Cafe I got the sense of a high-end chain restaurant, which is exactly what it is. It isn’t easy to explain how the ambiance was different from a Ruby Tuesday’s or an Outback steakhouse. It felt like a chain restaurant but somehow, how do I say this, nicer? Maybe it was the fact that it was a standalone building in a shopping center or maybe it was the specials menu that was sitting exactly the same on every table. I’m usually one that is turned off by the sameness that a chain restaurant has but I was here and I was hungry so there was no turning back.
I’m glad I stayed. This chain restaurant serves some good food to go along with its good beer. Being the good southern boy that I am I ordered the slow-cooked tomato soup and the grilled cheese sandwich. My beer flight arrived and I settled into get started on my drinks while waiting for the food to arrive.
Lazy Dog Red – The heat of Southern California dictates that the beer should be light and crisp. You wouldn’t want to drink a lot of heavy stouts in Southern California in the summer just like you wouldn’t want a watermelon blonde ale in upstate New York in the dead of winter. This red ale was a perfect complement to the near 100 degree heat just outside the restaurant’s air-conditioned interior. This beer is smooth and crisp without a hint of hops. It tastes more like an amber ale than a red (although I suppose amber is red) and is easy drinking at 5.3% ABV. I was drinking this delicious beer while my co-worker was drinking some peach concoction that was advertised on the table. I’m pretty sure I got the better end of the stick but he seems to disagree. I’ll never understand non-craft beer drinkers. 4 out of 5 stars.
Pale Ale – Even though I was glad to see that this chain restaurant was serving some good beers I think the Lazy Dog Cafe needs to do some work on the naming of their beers. As you might expect, the Pale Ale served was a pale ale. What was interesting was that this tasted identical to the Lazy Dog Red. I seriously thought I was being punked or something. If it wasn’t for the slight difference in color (and I mean so slight that I was looking real hard to find it) I would have sworn that I was given the Lazy Dog Red (or the Pale Ale) twice. I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter because the first beer was tasty and so was the second. Untappd seems to think that the Pale Ale has a whopping .2% more ABV than the Lazy Dog Red so watch out! Either way, since they tasted the same and they both tasted good how could I not give the Pale Ale 4 out of 5 stars?
Honey Blonde Ale – By the third beer of my flight I finally arrived at the second beer in the tasting. Before this visit to California I was convinced that every beer brewed in the State was derived directly from a hop plant. This honey blonde ale was the second blonde ale I had tasted from California breweries in as many days that was top-notch. Light and crisp and perfect for the hot, Southern California temperature. If you are seeking out a beer to get your best friend to stop chugging can after can of Coors Light may I suggest this 4.8% ABV, delicious honey blonde ale. This beer gets 4 out of 5 stars.
It was at this point that my tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich arrived. While far from the gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches I get from my favorite sandwich shop back home in Northern Virginia (I’m looking at you Spacebar), the sandwich was toasted perfectly and the cheese was hot and gooey. The tomato soup was thick and was perfect for dipping. I suppose if I had to go to a chain restaurant I could tolerate eating at the Lazy Dog Cafe (read that as meaning the food was good). Now with some food to complement my beverages I powered through with more tastings.
IPA – After enjoying the honey blonde ale I was beginning to think that this beer wasn’t any ordinary California beer. Maybe the brewer didn’t have the usual California inclination to jam as much hops into a beer as possible. Maybe there were other types of beer to brew than double, triple, and quad IPAs. Maybe, but then I came to another creatively named beer, the Indian Pale Ale. The Indian Pale Ale is an Indian Pale Ale, just in case you didn’t get that from the name. Brewed to have the same flavor profile as other California IPAs, this beer was very much like raking some pine needles, putting them in a blender, then consuming. This 6.5% brew is exactly what one might expect from an IPA brewed on the West Coast. If you like your IPA to be in the California style (think Lagunitas or Stone) then you would give this beer a 5 out of 5. However, if your taste buds are more like mine you will despise this beer and rate it as I did, 1 out of 5 stars.
Lazy Dog Oatmeal Stout – I needed something to cleanse my palate after all my taste buds had been swept away by the overwhelming hops. I looked around frantically for a bottle of Listerine but I was unsuccessful. I would have settled for some binaca to refresh my destroyed mouth but I couldn’t find any 13-year-old boys trying to impress 16-year-old girls and it wasn’t 1996 so that mission failed as well. However, luck was on my side. The next beer in my tasting rack was an Oatmeal Stout. I guess I could have started looking there but the hops from the IPA were so ingrained in my body that my brain was temporarily out of service.
The dark malt from the oatmeal stout touched my lips and cleared my head. The black coffee smell and taste of the oatmeal stout reacted with my soul the same way a cup of coffee does first thing in the morning. I was awake, I was alive, and I was free of the hops that had taken over my tongue. I probably rated this 6.1% ABV stout higher than it is worth because it was so invigorating. Just like the first day of spring feels so much warmer than it really is after weathering the cold winter, this beer probably tasted so much better than it really was after my mouth had weathered the IPA storm. So much better. Like drinking a nice dark coffee. I rated it a 4.5 out of 5.
Lazy Dog Hefeweizen – The highs and lows of this simple tasting at a chain restaurant had left me exhausted. Tasting beer, much like bowling, is a sneaky proposition. In bowling, you don’t feel like you are doing anything strenuous until you wake up the next morning wondering why your legs are sore and you can barely lift your arms (or maybe I’m just out of shape). I was finally to my last beer in this very large tasting. I was glad to see it was a hefeweizen. I was looking forward to something easy to drink and not overly complex. The beer treated me to exactly what I needed. The golden beverage slid into my gullet and two words entered my mind: Blue Moon. There was no doubt in my mind. This wasn’t the Lazy Dog Hefeweizen but a Blue Moon in disguise. Not a bad way to end the tasting. A nice and easy 4.6% ABV pallet cleanser that I gave 3.25 out of 5 stars.
The tasting was done, the meal was done, and it was time to head back to the hotel that I was staying at for the week. I was happy because I had found a chain restaurant that didn’t make me feel like I was selling my soul for a mediocre meal. The food was good and the beer was good. The service was good and the ambiance was good. I guess what I’m trying to say about the Lazy Dog Cafe is, well, it was good.