Where do you go for an off-the-beaten-path food experience that brings together an old-school L.A. vibe, bizarre set-designer whimsy and good-for-all-ages American steakhouse grub? How about the eclectic trio of cabinlike, midcentury restaurants in Covina, San Gabriel and La Mirada: Clearman's North Woods Inns.
As you step into a North Woods Inn, you'll slowly pull open a heavy wooden door and peer into a dimly lit and richly decorated room of rustic log walls, massive taxidermied bears, jewel-toned stained glass, sawdust-strewn floors and eccentric hunting-lodge kitsch. The signs tell you to "Please throw peanut shells on floor."
The meat-centric menu has enormous "lumberjack"-sized steaks and giant baked potatoes. Vegetarian options are few, but the greasy, gooey cheese bread and iceberg lettuce salad are worshiped with a cultlike fanaticism.
The restaurants are creations of another era. Each was designed by architect Robert Frank Duff to look like 19th-century Alaskan hunting lodges, with raw, rounded, interlocking logs complete with faux snow-covered roofs and dangling "icicles." Like many things in L.A., Clearman's North Woods Inn all comes down to showmanship.
John Foley Clearman was a creative man who seemed to want to be noticed. Born in New York City in 1906 and raised in Coronado, California, he graduated from Yale in 1929 with a degree in theater.
A trained Shakespearean actor, Clearman spent several years during the Great Depression on the road with traveling productions. He once was quoted as saying, "A good restaurant has a longer run than a good play" and abruptly changed career paths to reinvent himself as a restaurant owner.
In 1946, at age 40, he opened his first restaurant, Clearman's Steak 'n' Stein, still operating today in Pico Rivera. It was a hit, and Clearman went on to open several more spots, each one taking more of a thematic risk. He used high drama and imagination to inspire his restaurants. His third venture, the Golden Cock — located near Pasadena, where Clearman and his family had settled — had an early-1900s theme, and all employees and waitstaff were required to dress in period costume. The elaborate and still operating Magic Lamp Inn, built in 1955 in Rancho Cucamonga, has spectacular genie-lamp exterior neon — and was also a Clearman creation.
When he got down to creating the first North Woods Inn in 1958 in Monrovia, Clearman went for the full-on show. The "snow"-covered roof, authentic animal trophies and antiques added flair and festiveness to a traditional steakhouse. He was so satisfied with this restaurant that when the 210 freeway came bustling through a few years later, he had the whole building painstakingly moved out of the way, log by log, at a cost of $100,000 (in 1966 dollars), to its present location on Rosemead Boulevard in San Gabriel. There, it became the centerpiece of Clearman's Village, a family-themed antique market and retail center with novelty shops and two more Clearman restaurants, including the Golden Cock and the Galley, an eatery built inside Clearman's own vintage 1913 boat.
Magic is often temporary. Decades passed, and Clearman's Village, on the corner of Rosemead and Huntington Drive, is now a Kohl's. The boat to the Galley still holds anchorage, fronting a brand-new sports bar and restaurant of the same name.
Thankfully, the North Woods Inn still gallantly stands, seemingly untouched by the march of time, its fake snow brilliantly glistening in the bright California sunshine. Two other identical locations, one in Covina, built in 1967, and another in La Mirada, built in 1989, complete this oddball chain.
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All North Woods Inn locations, the Galley and the original Steak 'n' Stein are now run by the Clearman’s Trust. John Clearman died in Pasadena in 1996 at the age of 89. The entertainer in him must have ultimately been satisfied having lived a life in the public eye. And just as Clearman predicted, his golden restaurant run continues to outlast most theatrical productions.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correctly describe the current ownership of the North Woods Inn locations, the Galley and the original Steak 'n' Stein.