The Lost Art of Tableside Service Survives at This Midcentury L.A. Restaurant
Dal Rae co-owner Lorin Smith has prepared the tableside Caesar likely thousands of times, the way his dad and uncle taught him.
At Dal Rae, the Pico Rivera restaurant where the same family has been serving surf and turf on white tablecloths for five decades, a traditional meal starts with the Caesar salad, and the Caesar starts with a dollop of anchovies. The pungent brown fish are finely minced in a food processor before being wheeled to a table in a wooden mixing bowl on a gleaming cart. Upon arrival they're dramatically drizzled with a cocktail of condiments, each poured from several feet in the air: olive oil, red wine vinegar, a shot of Tabasco and a healthy trickle of Lea & Perrins. Then comes the dry mustard, the fresh garlic and the egg, which has been perfectly coddled in 180-degree water. Finally there's the lemon, gently squeezed through cheesecloth to prevent its seeds from slipping into the mixture.
"There's a joke that a guy from Texas came up with," Lorin Smith, who co-owns the restaurant with his brother, Kevin, says while preparing the Caesar for a couple celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary. It's a Friday night, and nearly every table seems to be celebrating something: They've come with gift bags, birthday sashes and balloons in tow. "What's this here sauce?" Smith says, blending the words together to sound like "Worcester sauce." The joke gets only a small chuckle from the diners, who have ordered the rib-eye and the filet mignon, but Smith wastes no time continuing his rapid-fire Caesar preparation with a side of comedy. Multitasking is not a problem. This is, after all, the only job the 61-year-old has ever known; he and his brother started as teenage prep cooks here, when Dal Rae was still owned by their father, Ben, and uncle Bill.
At that time in the 1970s, Smith remembers, the restaurant was bustling with workers from the now-shuttered Ford auto plant across the street, horse trainers and celebrity jockeys from Santa Anita Park and cigar-smoking businessmen making deals over three-martini lunches. Smoking in restaurants was still de rigueur, California had yet to crack down on drunk driving, and business at Dal Rae was booming — so much so that Bill Smith purchased his own stable of racing horses, each named after the restaurant, including champion trotter Sir Dal Rae.
But it took years for Dal Rae to become successful, on and off the track. In 1951, Ben and Bill Smith bought the first of what would be three Dal Raes, near Watts (the name comes from its previous owners); they sold it in 1969, shortly after the neighborhood erupted in riots. The short-lived third location, in Fullerton, closed following the untimely death of the third Smith brother, Art.
As the only Dal Rae left standing, the Pico Rivera outpost defiantly bucks modern trends. There are no à la carte small plates or chef-driven menus with local ingredients. Instead, the grain-fed meat comes from the Midwest, the menu has been tweaked only occasionally over the decades and, despite an extensive remodel two years ago that involved raising the ceilings, building an outdoor patio and floating bar and reupholstering all of the booths, the main dining rooms look almost as they did in the 1950s. Modern upgrades have only accentuated the charm: The Googie-style sign out front is now illuminated by LED lights rather than neon, the dining room lined with horse-racing trophies and televisions is now an upscale banquet room, and the lounge singer now uses a MacBook Pro alongside his Yamaha keyboard to croon midcentury ballads such as Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" and Frank Sinatra's "Under My Skin."
A beacon of retro chic
But of all Dal Rae's retro elements, tableside service is perhaps its most precious. Ben and Bill Smith originally prepared tableside dishes including steak tartare and Grand Marnier Supreme, and the younger Smith brothers built on the tradition decades later. "They had both Lorin and myself to bring in our youth and our experience — you know, because my father and uncle were pouring coffee into their 70s," says Kevin Smith, who originated Dal Rae's tableside Caesar and duck à l'Orange. "Very few restaurants do it tableside, and it's something that we would not want to ever stop doing."
Tableside service dates back at least to the late 19th century, when the French chef Georges Auguste Escoffier introduced dishes that were intended to both dazzle customers and transform dining into a tasteful spectacle. Escoffier is credited with inventing desserts such as peach Melba and cherries jubilee, which he flambéed over vanilla ice cream for Queen Victoria at her diamond jubilee celebration.
Tableside service experienced a renaissance in the 1950s, when it exemplified the height of American fine dining — a welcome extravagance following the meat rationing of World War II. The preparations, which are time-consuming and therefore costly for restaurants, fell out of style around the 1980s.
And yet, even on the verge of extinction, tableside dishes are still found on the menu at Los Angeles restaurants such as the original Lawry's the Prime Rib in Beverly Hills, where the prime rib is carved to order from silver carts and the salad is tossed tableside from a spinning bowl. Newer steakhouses, such as BOA in West Hollywood and Baltaire in Brentwood, pay tribute to the tradition by offering tableside Caesar and Greek salads, respectively. But other recent attempts to revive the art form have not been so successful: RivaBella, where servers prepared risotto from a tableside wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, closed in 2015 after just two years.
The more modern incarnation of food preparation–as-spectacle is different in nature and in purpose from old-school tableside service. At the fashionable new Felix Trattoria in Venice, for example, diners have a full view of the glassed-in room where chef Evan Funke rolls perfect pasta by hand. Felix celebrates the chef as an artist whose methods are worthy of inspection (albeit from a distance); at Dal Rae, on the other hand, the spectacle is meant to make the restaurant's higher-ups more accessible to diners — and to be a source of kitschy fun.
Cherries jubilee at Dal Rae
Dal Rae manager Kent Mailand started working at the restaurant three years ago, which makes him a relative newcomer by Dal Rae's standards (79-year-old chef Benny Kase has been with the restaurant for more than 45 years, and he's not an anomaly). But Mailand is a longtime believer and practitioner of tableside service. In fact, he boasts that he once prepared banana flambé for a crowd of 2,000.
The dessert, as Mailand tells it, is a twist on the bananas Foster invented at the New Orleans restaurant Brennan's in 1946; Dal Rae's version adds almonds and peaches. Mailand uses a spoon to cut a halved banana into six pieces, then fries the fruit in a copper pan along with butter, brown sugar, banana liqueur and rum. "We have 151. Some restaurants use 150 but we use 151," he says with a wink, pointing to the bottle. When the alcohol hits the heat, blue flames shoot into the air. For him, the splash of the alcohol, the crackle of the fire and the alchemy of the sugars are just part of the magic.
"When people see it across the dining room, they say, 'Ooooh,'?" he says. "It's making them happy. When someone's happy, it makes you happy."
Lorin Smith, who during most shifts wears a black suit and a floral tie, has prepared the Caesar likely thousands of times, the way his dad and uncle taught him. But if he's the least bit bored by it, he never lets on. "You have to be very gentle," he told one table on that recent Friday night. "You don't want to bruise the lettuce. How about cracked pepper? How about extra cheese? Garlic on top?"
When a customer tells him her brother dined here recently, he quips, "You're much better-looking." Then he turns to me and says: "We've only known them about 40 years."
DAL RAE | 9023 Washington Blvd., Pico Rivera | (323) 723-4427 | dalrae.com
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the tableside dishes at Lawry's the Prime Rib.
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