We are in the midst of a steakhouse renaissance in Los Angeles. In the past year, new steakhouses have opened all over town: steakhouses that skew the genre toward Italian menus or Indonesian influences, and steakhouses that stick to the original format of straight-up, old-school American temples of meat.
I'm not 100 percent sure what the reasons are for this proliferation, but if I had to guess, I'd say it's probably a step on the long, slow path back to fine dining. For the most part, chefs are still shying away from opening classic, white-tablecloth, high-end restaurants, but they sense that customers are in the mood for something a little fancier than the gastropub/small-plates trope that has become ubiquitous over the last 10 years. For some reason, people are willing to pay $50 for a steak and an extra $12 for a veggie side, even as they balk at the tyranny of a $40 entree at non–meat-focused restaurants.
As much as I love a hulking piece of well-aged, well-grilled cow, I tend to resent the excesses of steakhouses. This town is full of good butchers, and I know how to cook a steak at home, where it won't cost me $120 for a T-bone. But it's hard to resist the charms of the Arthur J, David Lefevre's new Manhattan Beach restaurant. If a steakhouse is all about a projection of American fantasy, then the Arthur J spins that fantasy particularly well.
Lefevre and his partners at the Simms Restaurant Group are now undisputedly the kings of Manhattan Beach restaurants, having gradually grown an empire, beginning with the insanely popular New American MB Post. Then, a few doors down, came Fishing With Dynamite, a sunny, New England–style seafood shack.
And now, across the street but still within spitting distance, is the Arthur J. Like Lefevre's other two restaurants, the Arthur J is highly stylized, this time as an homage to its namesake, Arthur J. Simms.
Simms, the grandfather of the partners who make up the Simms Restaurant Group, was an L.A. restaurateur in the 1950s, founding establishments such as the French Quarter in West Hollywood and the Kettle, which still operates in Manhattan Beach. He also founded Mimi's Cafe in Anaheim in the 1970s. His portrait, which depicts an older gent with a white mustache and a salmon-colored jacket, hangs in the restaurant, and various other objects hint at his presence (including a lifelike sculpture of a dog bowl and a pair of shoes by the front door, which one must assume you would've seen were you to enter the man's home when he was alive). Arthur J. Simms died in 2002.
Aside from these touches, the main tribute to Simms is the restaurant's decor, which is an imagining of Simms' heyday. Mad Men has certainly inspired more than a few eateries to replicate the show's glossy 1950s swagger, but I can't think of any I've come across that do it as well as the Arthur J. Its walls, booths, tables and geometrically latticed room dividers are made from honey-toned wood, light fixtures are tastefully space-age, carpets and upholstering have the gray and navy chromatism of a well-made suit, and deep-red velvet chairs punctuate the room. Everything has a muted golden hue. It's glorious.
Cocktails provide clever twists on the classics, and those "twists," along with the forward-thinking wine list, are really the only details of the restaurant that veer toward modernity. The food is almost all throwback, down to a pot roast served from white Pyrex with a blue curlicued design, a vessel that typically wouldn't be seen in an upscale steakhouse but that graced the kitchens of most housewives circa 1959. It's true that you'd be hard-pressed to find a restaurant serving farro risotto as a side in Arthur J. Simms' time, but that sort of contemporary concession is the exception, not the rule.
In some cases the rule works in this restaurant's favor — who doesn't love a good iceberg wedge drenched in blue cheese and showered with crumbled bacon?
Occasionally, though, I'd prefer the updated version of a dish. The split pea soup is fine, if a little thin and dribbly, though that's likely true to the era. The waiters will push you toward toast topped with bone marrow, and it might indeed be a good option for convincing people who've shied away from the stuff that it's palatable. But if you actually love marrow, the overwhelmingly sweet bacon-onion jam on the toast will rob you of that funky pleasure almost completely.
But on to more pressing matters. Are the steaks cooked well? Do they deliver that meaty tang, that carnivorous joy, the char and blood and gratifying balance between tender and toothsome? They are and they do, particularly the dry-aged prime, which comes in a variety of very expensive cuts.
The sides also showcase the best of classic steakhouse cookery, the creamed spinach richer than any vegetable rightly ought to be, the creamed corn sweet and punctuated with the crunch of scallions, the mashed potatoes decadently "butter-laden."
In true steakhouse fashion, the steaks are expensive, the sides cost $12, and you'll pay an extra $4 for a very good bordelaise sauce (or one of the other 12 kinds of sauce you can choose from). Somehow this equation that adds up to about $100 per person is A-OK, because people expect that of a steakhouse. It would be silly to fault the Arthur J for this; it's true of all of its ilk.
There are things here other than steak, things such as whole roasted fish or that aforementioned pot roast. They're fine, even great in some cases. But unless you're here merely to look good in the handsome setting — a perfectly fair aim, I should add — you should be here for the steak.
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Great steak, it turns out, is an indulgence that never gets old.
THE ARTHUR J | Three stars | 903 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach | (310) 878-9620 | thearthurj.com | Sun.-Wed., 5-10:30 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. | Steaks, $32-$148 | Full bar | Valet parking