Peter Moruzzi is on a crusade to save fine dining. An admirer of classic, historic restaurants since his youth, Moruzzi, an L.A.-based writer, started to become alarmed in recent years over the ever more rapid disappearance of America's dining history. So he decided to write a book about it.
Classic Dining: Discovering America's Finest Mid-Century Restaurants isn't just a history textbook, but also a living guidebook to the venerable old places that are still around today. "My hope was that a book focusing on the value of classic restaurants might inspire people to locate and frequent those survivors in their areas," Moruzzi says. "It was also to debunk the notion that white tablecloth establishments were deserving of extinction in favor of trendy restaurants with their hard surfaces and minimalist interiors."
Recently we sat down in a cushy vinyl booth with Moruzzi to learn more about his project.
Squid Ink: People who don't have an appreciation for these restaurants might not want to go, either because they think the food is going to be heavy or old fashioned. What would you say to get them to give some of these classic places a try?
Peter Moruzzi: I think people should go just so they can experience what dining was like in America before they were born. It's part of appreciating American history. If people have no interest in how their parents lived or how their parents ate, they're not going to go. But if they do, this gives them an opportunity to truly experience something that is part of our culinary past.
And yes, some of the food is rich and definitely not cutting edge, and the menu is old fashioned, but to me that's part of the excitement of going to places you are unfamiliar with and you want to experience. I like to go to cutting edge restaurants for the same reason. There's plenty of room for the traditional, old-style restaurants and the new. If people are just pigeonholed into eating at upscale or trendy restaurants, I think they're missing a lot. But that's my belief about life. That's why I seek out authenticity in architecture, authenticity in culture, and food in restaurants. It's all the same type of thinking.
SI: Historically, over time, would you say, though, that's it's kind of a good thing that food has generally trended healthier and lighter than it was at that time?
PI: I don't care about contemporary trends. I just don't. Yes, I think it's great that food has changed over time, and people are eating more home grown stuff. But that's not what I'm interested in. If I had my choice, I would eat every single meal at a traditional restaurant.
SI: But you said you like to go to a few newer places too!
PM:That's, right, I do, actually. In Silver Lake, I like Blair's, and I like Barbrix, and I like Forage. And I love Korean food. But the only one I go to is the one that has a charcoal grill in the middle of the table -- I don't like gas. Soot Bull Jeep, on 8th in Koreatown, near the old Ambassador. But there, there's a link to traditional restaurants -- the charcoal grill.
SI: Why do some of these places endure, while other places become tired and people lose interest?
PM: That's a really complicated question. There's a lot of reasons. It sometimes has to do with management -- it's either good or not so good. Quality falters, and people stop going there. The ones that survive are generally the ones that have superb service, a great menu -- and everything has been maintained.
Often, the original owners just get tired, or move on, or die, and there's no one else to take over. Once those people go, then the restaurants often go too. Or they try to sell it but the person who buys it doesn't really have the same level of ability.
SI: Which of your favorite classic places in L.A. have the best something? The best waitress, the best bartender, like that?
PM: The best tableside prep is at the Dal Rae. The best lounge is The Dresden. The best traditional steakhouse would be Taylor's. The best theatrical presentation would be Lawry's. The most Hollywood would be Musso & Frank. Everybody on earth went there -- it's sort of the essence of Hollywood. Then Taix -- Taix is Taix. It's kind of quirky and fun and they've got a great bar. The French theme is not one that has survived anywhere else.
SI: At the Tam O'Shanter, I enjoyed the theme, the waitstaff, but the food was ... not great. In researching this book, do you feel like you've eaten a lot of great food?
PM: Some are better than others. Some you go to just for the atmosphere and the character. Others you're lucky to have that plus really good food. The Dal Rae is the best example of that. It's amazing there -- best Caesar salad I've ever had. Taylor's is a typical steakhouse -- I wouldn't say it's better than anywhere else. People go to Musso for different reasons -- I don't think they go there for the food per se -- they may go there for the atmosphere, for the history, for the cocktails. I don't generally rate these places based on quality of food. In fact, I don't ever rate them based on quality of food. It's the whole package. But if the food was realy awful, they probably wouldn't be in business anymore.
SI: So if you were condemed and had to pick a last meal, where would you go?
PM: Dal Rae, or Galatoire's in New Orleans. A completely different dining experience. It's old, it's in New Orleans. Incredible food, incredible atmosphere, the waiters have been there a hundred years, a great location, you have to wear a jacket, and if you don't they give you one. I've never been to a restaurant where the customers actually know each other, and they have their own waiters that they ask for by name.
SI: Do those customers tend to skew older?
PM: No, it's interesting, it's multigenerational. It's been around so long, every generation brings their kids, the whole family. Antoine's is like that as well. New Orleans is its own world. It's completely different than any place I've ever been, and the food on average, the quality is so high. They have to have their quality high, or they will go out of business. People in New Orleans demand it.
SI: Who has the better restaurants, the West Coast or the East?
PM: You can't compare New Orleans to Los Angeles, or San Francisco to New York. In terms of steakhouses, probably New York has better ones overall. The West Coast is definitely better at doing themed restaurants -- there are far more themed restaurants in California than other parts of the country.
SI: What do you think, 40 or 50 years from now, which trends that we have now do you think will be preserved or will stand out to people in the future?
PM: I have no idea. The same question has been asked in architecture, because I'm an architectural historian. They say, "What kind of architecture that's being created now will stand the test of time?" I have no bloody idea.
There's stuff that's fairly obvious -- Disney Hall, of course, or you could say some of the buildings at LACMA. But I have no idea what's going to stand the test of time a few years from now. I mean, people in the '50s and '60s, as far as I know, would have never said that Googie coffee shops would have stood the test of time and that they represent an era. Then, they were functional. It drew people's attention, and they would stop. But at the time, people didn't recognize it.
SI: When you go to a contemporary restaurant, do you ever get the feeling that something is missing that restaurateurs could gain by hanging on to?
PM: Yes -- tableside preparation. I think that if restaurants brought that back, people would really enjoy it. I think there's ways you could do contemporary cooking with tableside, if you're clever. And I really like tablecloths and vinyl booths. I don't like these hard chairs and hard surfaces and noisy rooms. I think they should go back to darker interiors, more mood lighting, booths, and white tablecloths.
SI: Yeah -- noisy is kind of trendy, isn't it?
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PM: I guess. You can't even have a conversation in some places. The thing about classic restaurants is that they specifically were acoustically tuned so you could hear somebody at the end of a table that had six or eight people at it. Like The Dresden -- it has cork everywhere. they sort though all that noise. You could talk, and you could take a lot more time eating in these classic restaurants. You didn't' just come in and out. And there were a lot more courses, too. People would have dessert, they would have cognac, and they'd have coffee. It's a different way of dining.