The Dive Master
A BARTENDING Mason shares a beloved family tradition: a good drink.
By Kelsey Lannin
Diveristy in Friendship
by Antone R.E. Pierucci
John Grondorf will be the first to admit that, for a good chunk of its patrons, the Craftsman Bar and Kitchen isn’t the main destination. Located a block from palm-studded Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, it’s one of many establishments that benefit from the magnetism of the Santa Monica Pier, Dogtown, and nearby, Venice Beach. Rather, he says of the watering hole, “It’s the place you go before and after.”
That suits its proprietor just fine. Grondorf didn’t think he’d be spending quite so much time there himself. As a former head bartender for Hyatt Hotels, he’d spent his career traveling the country, building cocktail menus and training bar staff for the multinational corporation. But over the past eight years, he’s traded the jet-setting life for a well-worn spot behind the bar.
It’s a comfier workplace, anyway. Grondorf initially made a small investment in the business during its previous life as a gastropub called the Yard. But in 2013, the business was about to go under and needed a lifeline. “I got a call from the guys who worked there,” Grondorf says. “They’re like, ‘Well, we were told you’re the one to call now.’”
They called the right guy. Grondorf quit his job, bought a majority stake in the foundering business, and became managing partner. “It was really simple,” he says. “I had a corporate background and jumped right into doing my own thing, which was a lot more fun.”
The fact that he’d grown up in the industry didn’t hurt. Until 2011, Grondorf’s mother and stepfather ran El Gallo Pinto, a Nicaraguan restaurant in West Covina that was lauded by the late food critic Jonathan Gold. And his grandparents ran a supper club-style place called the Overtime in Glendora. They loved the atmosphere so much, they had a full-service bar built into their home. “We would have family parties, everything at the bar,” Grondorf says. “They had a huge house, but I don’t think we ever hung out in other rooms.”
With that in mind, Grondorf set to work revamping the funky beach haunt into a place that felt authentically local, but inviting enough to appeal to out-of-towners. Eventually, Grondorf landed on what he lovingly terms a “fine diving” aesthetic. “We’re as close to a dive bar as you can be in Santa Monica,” he says.
In March of 2013, the Yard reopened as the Craftsman Bar and Kitchen. The name was a nod to both the Arts and Crafts architecture that his hometown of Pasadena is known for and to Freemasonry. Grondorf joined Santa Monica-Palisades No. 307 in 2006 and has furnished many of his lodge’s gatherings with food and drinks from the Craftsman’s kitchen. “To be able to give back, it’s an honor for me,” he says. “I wish I could do more.”
The bar’s decor tacks toward the personal. Signs inherited from his grandfather’s supper club feature prominently, as does a James Dean mural spray-painted by L.A. artist and friend Jonas Never—a tribute to the film Rebel Without a Cause, scenes of which were shot a short walk away at the pier.
But the pub’s most personal connection can be found behind the bar. It was there, over drinks, that Grondorf struck up a friendship with the woman who would eventually become the Craftsman’s first bartender. In 2018, they married, and like his parents and grandparents before him, John and Kelly Grondorf now run the operation as a family business.
Russ Hennings/Moonbeam Studios
More from this issue:
A small-town California lodge makes a big-time impact.