By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
Judah Casburn whips around the Arroyo in a 1966 MGB Roadster convertible.
He, his wife, Gail, and their two sons, Gareth, 31, and Owen, 29, own and operate the Altadena Ale & Wine House on North Fair Oaks in Altadena.
The beloved 11-year-old consummate neighborhood joint is unpretentious and reasonably priced. The Altadena Ale & Wine House has been slowly creeping back to life, thanks to its stalwart, loyal regulars. As pandemic restrictions continue to lift, fully vaccinated patrons have returned to the pub with renewed confidence and a thirst for conviviality and craft beer.
However, it’s not commonly known that the Casburn family’s holdings extend farther east to Washington Boulevard in Pasadena. The Casburns have operated Club 1881, the tiny jazz haunt next to Stater Bros. Market, since 2017.
Previously, the Casburns were the original owners of Lucky Baldwin’s Pub, the iconic watering hole on Raymond Avenue in Old Town. If there was an establishment that defined the easy sway of social life in Old Town Pasadena for years before the pandemic, it’s Lucky Baldwin’s. With its warren of rooms and stairs, its authentic menu of English pub favorites and live TV broadcasts of international soccer matches, Lucky Baldwin’s has always defined pub culture in Pasadena.
It all started in 1991 on Union Street and Arroyo Parkway at the site of another local institution: King Taco.
“We talked for an hour, struck a deal and bought it,” Judah said over a Guinness.
The spot was already named Lucky Baldwin’s but was operating as a lunchtime sandwich shop.
“It was a busy place. They had a beer and wine license and we opened it up as a pub,” Judah recalled.
After moving the pub to its current location on Raymond in 1995, the Casburns sold the operation in 1997 to one of their bartenders, the late David Farnworth. First, however, they instituted a robust and eclectic line of draft beer, as well as World Cup soccer screenings.
“We were the first to sell Belgian beer (and) the first to sell local craft beer,” Judah said. “We went out of our way to get it.”
The family also carved a niche by broadcasting the 1994 World Cup soccer matches.
“Nobody except the English people knew. It was so much fun,” Judah remarked.
Judah was born and raised in Yorkshire, England, and worked as a lead bartender for the National Jazz Federation and at the Marquee Club in London before emigrating to Southern California in September 1978.
Appropriately, Judah met Gail at an Old Town pub.
“We met years before we even started dating at the old Loch Ness, now called the Old Town Pub,” Gail said. “Then we just started hanging out.”
The couple married on St. Patrick’s Day, 1988.
They saved their money to buy Lucky Baldwin’s, partnered in a peculiar enterprise.
“We used to sell containers full of vintage British sports cars,” Gail revealed.
Collectors take note: “We still have a lot of cars: XKs, MGs, Triumphs. We have lots of cars. We need to get rid of them.”
Following the sale of Lucky Baldwin’s, the Casburns settled in Altadena and focused on raising their two young sons. Gail taught math and computer science full time at Baldwin Hills High School for 25 years. She has strong opinions on the school system.
“Any public school is better than a private or charter school,” said Gail, as she packed a box of food for a local family in need. “It’s just a scam.”
Gail is the family’s point person to the community. Despite the family’s own fight for survival, she instituted a feeding program for unemployed and undocumented restaurant workers during the pandemic. She started the program more than seven months ago, advertising locally through the Pasadena Jaycees. She continues to serve a few families and “anyone in the restaurant industry who needs food,” she explained.
The Altadena Ale & Wine House distributed meal kits twice a week to families in the Pasadena, Eagle Rock and El Sereno area. She provides “good, fun stuff” like eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, beets, broccoli, garlic bread and cheese.
“Most of the people are back to work now,” Gail noted. “I give them enough for a few days. Generally speaking, they all know how to cook.”
At the onset of the pandemic, Club 1881 — with its full bar and no kitchen or outdoor space — shut down and only recently opened at half capacity. The Altadena Ale & Wine House stayed open, selling groceries and takeout trays of lasagna, cottage pie and baked ziti. “Things we could do in our pizza oven,” Gail explained. “God, it was hard.”
“We really struggled,” Judah added. “We sold growlers. Beer and wine to go.”
They received a federal Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) from the Small Business Administration and have applied for a grant from the Restaurant Relief Fund.
On a recent Sunday evening, a stream of regulars wandered in, many of them landing on the small outdoor patio in back. There are a dozen different draft beers available, including Guinness, all serviced from kegs installed in the bar’s cellar.
The wine selection is neatly and colorfully chalked on a board. Everything is available by the glass or bottle. The kitchen’s menu is limited to pizza, salads and “gourmet” hot dogs. Four-inch individual pizzas ($7) or 10-inch pies ($15) are topped with a choice of fresh ingredients. The dogs go for $8. Salads are also available with Gail’s homemade dressing.
“Sometimes we do soup in the winter months or Thai curry with rice,” Gail added.
Meanwhile, with Club 1881 now open, the family plans to install a kitchen by late fall.
For those in the know, Club 1881 is best known for its Friday night jazz sessions. The shows are curated and booked by one of those Altadena Ale & Wine House regulars, the noted jazz and studio drummer Joel Taylor. Taylor has played with Joe Sample, Al Di Meola and Stanley Clarke, to name a few, and he was the last drummer with the iconic jazz group The Crusaders.
Taylor lives five blocks away from the Altadena Ale & Wine House. Recalling the days before the pub opened, “Eleven years ago, this place looked like a crack house. We were all afraid to come in here. (It was) a gang hang,” Taylor recalled.
Soon enough, Taylor, his bandmates and the Casburns became fast friends. Informal monthly jams began at the Altadena Ale & Wine House.
When the Casburns took over Club 1881, allegedly Pasadena’s oldest bar, Gail approached Taylor.
“She wanted a speakeasy vibe with a regular jazz night,” Taylor said. “She asked me to start booking it. I started calling my friends around town.” Those “friends” happen to be some of Los Angeles’ most talented and serious players.
Taylor’s Altadena Quartet kicked things off. His quartet features Chuck Manning on tenor saxophone, Quinn Johnson on keyboards and either Putter Smith or Ben Shepherd on bass. That’s just the house band. Otmaro Ruiz, John Beasley, Mitch Forman, Scott Henderson, Larry Koontz and Doug Webb have all played at Club 1881. “Probably 30 different bands have played there,” Taylor noted.
Before the pandemic, admission was free for the Friday night sessions. That will likely change soon. Gail suggests that a $10 cover charge and two-drink minimum may become the new normal at Club 1881. It’s still a bargain for the caliber of musicianship that Taylor regularly books in the tiny club. Look for the jazz to return this month.
Meanwhile, the Casburn sons, Gareth and Owen, hold the keys to the future of local pub culture. Both are Blair High School graduates. Gareth matriculated from San Diego State and Owen from Humboldt State University, before each of them returned here to the family business. Gareth helps manage the operation at the Altadena Ale & Wine House, while Owen runs the show at Club 1881.