Ah, family values. Somehow an engagement is never so official, turning 75 nowhere near such an achievement, the reunion not anything like as warm, unless the occasion has been anointed with the blood of rare-cooked beef and the gut-fluttering sacrifice of a bill that tops out the yearly budget. No doubt the association of red meat with celebration goes back to our earliest ancestors -- for whom the bringing down of a woolly mammoth and the charbroiling of said mammoth‘s haunch could not be counted as an everyday occurrence. Certainly by biblical times, the notion that a gathering of blood relatives requires a blood sacrifice in the form of fresh-killed farm animal was ingrained -- or should the word be ”interlarded“ -- in human feast-lore.
The menu that greeted the parable’s prodigal son, for instance, was never at issue, only which sibling -- the dour but dutiful stay-at-home or the charming wastrel turning up all apologies on the doorstep -- was most deserving of the fatted calf. Today‘s dutiful sons and daughters may feel that the explanation offered by the father -- that he loved both boys in different ways -- is a little bit like being told that the person who gets the Jell-O is just as lucky as the one who gets the chocolate cake. Still, the soporific state that accompanies the digestion of really large hunks of protein tends to take the edge off our disgruntlement, and civil behavior is more or less enforced by the fact that these days the ritual of the killed calf is likely to be enacted publicly, in a restaurant.
But not in just any restaurant. However many French chefs, hardened arteries and dedicated vegans a particular family may have spawned, it will stubbornly cling to tradition when celebrating its most important milestones. And in families like mine -- devoutly old-school and reasonably carnivorous -- tradition means a restaurant devoted to that holy trinity of fine middle-American dining: leather, linen and butter curls. An institution, in other words, like the Pacific Dining Car on Sixth Street.
Be it ever so unfortunately sited (Good Samaritan Hospital looms next door, triggering unwelcome thoughts of bad cholesterol), this is a place that takes its role of altar seriously. From the moment one enters the paneled darkness of the tiny foyer, coming elbow to rim with bowls of meaty matchbooks and chocolate-dipped swizzle sticks, the place exudes an air of high-priced appeasement the way a temple trails incense. Indeed, what with entrees running, on average, $32 each (and that’s just the beef; each baked potato or hollandaise-napped broccoli spear is a few dollars more), one is faintly surprised, as when visiting Aztec ruins, that the walls aren‘t redder.
Over the years -- it’s been serving since 1921 -- the building itself has taken on an air of mystery. A series of additions has resulted in five separate dining rooms that unfold at odd angles to one another, the perspective being further skewed by mirrors and illuminated alcoves. The railroad car originally towed to the site is more a matter of faith than observable fact, although the reconstructed illusion in the first room one enters -- all globe lights and mahogany -- plays to the robber baron in each of us. Here is American opulence at its finest: extravagantly bountiful, strivingly luxurious but democratically accessible to all. For a price.
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Steak in a dozen different sizes, cuts and combinations is the mainstay of the Dining Car‘s menu, but family members at a recent celebration were more impressed with the rosemary-scented rack of lamb than the less-than-buttery filet. (It’s hard to tell whether this is a mark of changing wholesalers or changing times.) A happier surprise was the discovery that vegetarians (though perhaps not vegans) could feast as sumptuously and live as dangerously as carnivores, thanks to baked potatoes attended by a silver salver bearing sour cream and chopped scallions, and an airy, two-tone, bittersweet chiffon otherwise known as creamed spinach.
Those whose consciences permit an occasional anchovy can also enjoy the Car‘s classically lubricious, perfectly croutoned caesar salad, while those with no conscience whatsoever can plunge into the spinach salad whose baby leaves are coated, with just the right amount of restraint (meaning, in my book, barely any restraint at all), in vinegar-sweet bacon dressing. Anyone who finds both salads interdicted may be permitted an extra portion of the liberally proffered unsalted butter.
Still, a large part of my affection for the Dining Car is due less to the food or the setting than to the pair of plaster cows outside. They’re just like the ones at a restaurant I used to pass as a child and beg to be taken to, with zero success. Seeing them here always reminds me of the best family value of all: Every child, wastrel and goody-goody alike, has an equal chance to grow up to become a mater- or paterfamilias and write tradition his or her own way.#
1310 W. Sixth St.; (213) 483-6000. Open daily, 24 hours. Dinner for two, food only, about $70. Full bar. Takeout. Valet parking. CB, DC, MC, V.