December 28, 2014 – The Swingin’ Door is the best British pub in San Mateo, California.
It’s the only British pub in San Mateo. But even if there was a British pub on every street corner in San Mateo the Swingin’ Door would still be way up at the top of the list.
It hasn’t always been a British pub. It was opened in 1955 by two brothers named Fey, whose grandfather, Charles Fey, invented the slot machine. It gained local fame for its excellent cocktails and, since it was located near a horse racing track, it became popular as a hangout for celebrities. It’s said that Betty Grable, Harry James, Willie Shoemaker, Bing Crosby and Ronald Reagan were among the big names who were occasional visitors over the years.
Legend also has it that three guys calling themselves the Kingston Trio performed at the Swingin’ Door when they were trying to break into the music business. “Scotch and soda…mud in your eye…” Who knows?
But fame is a fleeting thing and by the end of the ’60s the glow was gone and the Swingin’ Door stopping swinging. It was purchased in the early ’70s by Ken Gilley who renamed it the Prince of Wales and decked it out in pub regalia. The current owner, Warren Chapman, bought it in 2006, kept the pub trappings but changed the name back to the Swingin’ Door.
He also had the good sense to keep chef Bruce Johnson who is now in his 31st year runnning the small kitchen just off the bar. And they created what is probably the hottest burger in the country. The XXX Habanero burger. Back to that directly.
My wife and I drove over on a Sunday afternoon to check the place out. It’s quiet on a Sunday. A few loyal customers watching football on one of several tv screens scattered around the first floor bar. But it’s easy to see that the Swingin’ Door can get rowdy and be a lot of fun when the sun goes down.
Upstairs is where the real night time action takes place. There are two pianos and some nights both are manned for a duel of the ivories. Other nights are reserved for Dixieland jazz. And yes, there are karaoke nights.
But on this Sunday we wanted to sample the Swingin’ Door’s menu. We ordered fish and chips because it’s a British pub and we thought it the thing to do. My wife ordered bangers and mash for the same reason. And because it’s one of her favorite meals.
The fish and chips were good. But the bangers were over the top. Easily the best British sausages either of us had ever eaten. Most enjoyable.
Back to the habanero burger. I can’t resist spicy foods. It’s in my genes. I ate my first hot pepper at the age of 11. It’s said my dad once drank the juice from a jar of pickled jalapenos. I’ve never tried that but I do like heat in my food. Had to try the habanero burger.
The menu lists two habanero burgers. The Super Spicy and the World Famous XXX. The World Famous XXX comes with a warning: “Extremely Hot…This is not a joke!” They also ask you to sign a form relieving them of any liability. It was the part about it not being a joke, and maybe the release, that made me think the Super Spicy would be good enough.
The burger arrived open faced. The hamburger patty laid on the bottom half of the bun completely covered with a devilish looking sauce that seemed to be about 1/8 of an inch thick. On the top half were the usual tomato and onion. I put the two together and took a bite.
It felt like my mouth had been firebombed. My first thought was “I’m really glad I didn’t order the World Famous XXX!” It was easily the hottest bite of food I’ve ever had. For a fleeting moment I wasn’t completely sure I would survive. For a longer moment I was speechless. When I could breathe normally again I’m not ashamed to admit I scraped off most of the sauce. I think my dad would understand.
With just the hint of the habanero sauce it became a good, manageable spicy burger. It was piquant in the truest sense of the word. Bitingly flavorful. I would order it again and approach it more cautiously.
The Swingin’ Door serves up good food. With a little foodie adventure and a lot of fun as side dishes. But when they say “This is not a joke!” pay attention. They mean what they say.