If you grew up in West Los Angeles, you probably have primal yearnings for Lawry's roast beef that you don't fully understand. If like me you hail from the south side, you may long for Poor Richard's, a '60s wonderland of Shirley Temples and chugging model trains up on Slauson near Crenshaw. Former Valley kids lull themselves to sleep by imagining the old trout stream running through Sportsman's Lodge.
But for generations of kids growing up on the east side of town, in the vast expanse of flatland stretching from the L.A. River out to Azusa, Whittier and beyond, memories of big meat begin and end at Clearman's North Woods Inn, a vast, timber-themed steak house ensconced in a log cabin the size of the Twin Cities Metrodome, home to sizzling lumberjack steaks, frothing schooners of root beer and huge baked potatoes smothered in whipped cheese-food topping. To a 9-year-old, it has never gotten any better than the North Woods Inn.
The North Woods Inn has spread into an empire - Clearman's owns half a dozen restaurants, and its cheese butter sits next to the Hooters hot-wing mix at supermarkets all over the Southland - but the mothership has always been the San Gabriel restaurant, anchoring a trappers-theme mall that includes a place to buy ye olde Ruger semiautomatics among the usual craft stores and gift emporia. Clearman's Village, which seems like a slice of Orange County unaccountably transplanted 20 miles north, is also home to the Galley, Clearman's suds-slinging burger barn, and Steak 'n Stein, Clearman's gourmet room, which compares in suavity to the North Woods Inn as Ward Cleaver did to the Beav.
Giant "icicles" hang from the eaves of the North Woods Inn, even in July, and the roof is covered with a foot and a half of "snow." The restaurant's sign is fashioned from what a post card in the lobby proudly calls "a slab cut from a massive thousand-year-old redwood tree."
Inside, the main dining room is a dim, soaring space, punctuated with animal heads and rusted lanterns, lined with long wooden tables, speckled with glowing oil paintings in the style of Goya's Naked Maja as rendered by the caricature guy at Disneyland. The piano player, a youngish dude who looks as if he is probably concealing half a dozen piercings underneath his barbershop-quartet outfit, is bold enough to leaven his sets of Gershwin and Kern with the occasional chorus of Green Day or the Offspring.
As soon as you are seated, a waiter comes over, props menus up in front of you like so many targets in a shooting gallery, and upends a bowl of peanuts onto your table, instructing you to throw the shells onto the floor.
There is a ritual to a dinner at North Woods Inn, as inviolable as the sacrament of the spinning salad bowl at Lawry's or the pageant of the flaming Jet Pilot at Trader Vic's, and while it is technically possible to order just a sandwich and an order of fries, I have never actually seen anyone do so.
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Where Chasen's used to serve Parmesan toast, the North Woods Inn serves cheese bread, a couple of slices per person. It is an unusually soggy toast, actually wrapped in foil for maximum floppiness and crusted with enough garlic and cheese to pave the bed of the Rio Hondo. Salads come in pairs, a tart red-cabbage slaw and a lettuce salad in a mild solution of blue cheese, which you are instructed to toss together into something resembling a decent college-dormitory-style salad with creamy Italian dressing.
Steaks come in all the usual shapes and sizes here, chunks on skewers, petite fillets and expensive New York cuts, but the house specialty is the lumberjack steak, a top sirloin more or less, seared to an accurate rare if you order it that way. It is fairly safe to say that the lumberjack steak will not wipe the memory of steaks at Jocko's or the Palm from your memory circuits, but it is a fair enough steak in its own limited way: not crusted with char but at least tinged with smoke; not USDA prime, but tender enough; not dry-aged for weeks, but as beefy, as full-flavored as most midpriced restaurant steaks that don't happen to be served at Taylor's.
It is possible, though not particularly advisable, to bypass the basic steak-house menu at the North Woods Inn - I still have bad dreams about a spectacularly bland piece of cod. But do not miss the pumpkin-size baked potato with cheese butter, probably 1,800 calories without breathing hard, which ranks with the Hollywood Bowl, MOCA and the outlet mall in the old Babylonian tire plant as a true cultural icon of California.
7247 N. Rosemead Blvd., San Gabriel; (626) 286-8284. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $24-$44. Full bar. Lot parking. Recommended dish: lumberjack steak. AE, D, DC, MC, V.