"Do many people order the Escargots de Casa?" I wonder as I peruse the all-American classic menu at the Smoke House in Burbank. Probably not. The three regulars in the booth next to me have just requested the famous cheese-laden garlic bread and a round of dry martinis with two olives each. One of them is saying, with a sigh, "I always get the same old thing."
The same old thing is what keeps this inveterate steak-and-prime-rib place in business, even while its well-known counterparts, Tail o’ the Cock, Tracton’s, the Oak Room, Conrad’s and Chadney’s, have become history. The Smoke House, on the other hand, seems busier than ever.
The regulars, now attacking a monumental order of Chateaubriand, begin reminiscing about working with Gregory Peck and about when executives at Lockheed or Warner Bros. Studio, just across the street, could sign for their meals here and get a monthly bill. "It was so civilized," one swoons.
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Before all the new studio offices were built nearby, people used the Smoke House as a sort of informal meeting room, lounging for hours in the dim light at its ample tables. TV folks came in by the droves. George Slaughter and Ed Friendly of Laugh-In were regular patrons, as were Bill Hanna of cartoon fame, and, later, Flip Wilson.
That was before Jim Lucero bought the restaurant in 1991. He had owned other restaurants (the Prime Rib Inn, the Tudor Inn in Downey, and Ole L.A. in the Bonaventure Hotel). "But I always loved this place," he says. Lucero was raised around the restaurant business. His father, a sous chef at such golden-day Hollywood watering holes as Perino’s and Romanoff’s, developed a following for the sautéed liver he’d cook for a pre–Rat Pack coterie that included Mickey Cohen, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart (liver is on the Smoke House menu to this day). "When I was about 6, my dad would take me out drinking with him," Lucero explains. "We often came to the Smoke House. I loved its feel of excitement, the expanse of the place, the crisp white tablecloths, the red leather, the entertainment and all the people visiting; it was like a party."
Opened in ’46 by three engineers from Lockheed, and later sold several times, the Smoke House came with a stellar reputation as the Valley’s first serious restaurant. It also had a lot of hidden debt. "The payroll account was in the red, although it didn’t show up on the books," Lucero reveals in a phone conversation. He credits his stalwart employees for keeping the faith through tough times. Among those who stuck it out when Lucero had to use credit cards to keep the restaurant from bankruptcy is Judy Dennis, a Smoke House waitress since ’62, who acts as its historian. She has worked with all of the restaurant’s previous owners, and she’s quick to describe how Lucero turned the food, as well as the restaurant’s finances, around. "He got rid of all the canned goods and had soups made from scratch."
Although it’s only about 8 p.m., the restaurant is emptying out. The early-dinner crowd that come in for the well-priced specials (roast turkey, $12.95; prime rib or roast pork, $13.95; including soup or salad, side dishes, dessert and coffee) have finished, and the hosts begin ushering in new guests. Several groups bearing anniversary gifts or birthday presents trek by our table. They’re going to a party — one that the child in Jim Lucero would most certainly adore. 4420 Lakeside Drive, Burbank; (818) 845-3733.