You could try a great old-school burger stand, but when you're in the mood for some blood-red beef, the sort of thing that requires a hefty knife and sturdy jaw, it's time to find an old-school steakhouse. They're still around, pushed into relic status by glass-lined modern restaurants with vocal PR teams and lots of buzz. But you can find them -- you just have to look.
From Glendale to Pico Rivera to Redondo Beach, there are wonderful throwback steakhouses all over L.A. County. They may not serve the single best New York strip steak or the world's finest wedge salad, but they've got regulars who have been sitting at the bar since the first Roosevelt administration. You may not find the latest craft beer you've been sipping around town, but the old-fashioneds still come strong and deep, and the dimly lit vinyl booths will soak you up and never let go. Step into the past at these five great old-school steakhouses, and you may never step back out.
Eschewing the "darkness as decoration" edict that seems to have permeated every other old-school steakhouse in the world, the Galley is a blitzkrieg of flashing lights and overabundance. You could spot the bedazzled exterior from the International Space Station, and the washed-out nautical theme doesn't dim a bit once you step inside. If you manage to find a barstool under the bamboo awning, prepare for an early night; the drinks at the Galley are poured with an iron fist, and prices are remarkably reasonable, given the electricity bill.
Even though it opened in 1934, the Galley isn't quite the type of place to go and get quietly lost inside a porterhouse steak and a stiff drink. Instead, it's a dreamland oasis of fun, boozy conversations with 20-somethings and old-timers alike. Tucking into a booth to share a 30-ounce Plank Special sirloin steak doesn't feel dark and mysterious, or even dusty and ancient. It just feels right. 2442 Main St., Santa Monica; 310-452-1934.
There's an understandable attraction to tiki bars, the slowly fading bar and steak house fad of a previous generation. All the bamboo, the Hawaiian print shirts, the grassy touches and excessively sugary rum drinks. At Damon's in Glendale, the lighthearted tiki look has been serious business since the 1930s.There are Hear No Evil monkeys on the orange-and-white bar napkins, and the neon color palette extends all the way to the impossibly vibrant Blue Hawaiians from the bar. The dinner booths would be considered more subdued if not for that splotchy carpet and etched palm trees in the copious amounts of surrounding glass. Here, even the walls are woven together, an uninterrupted look at the inside of a thatched beach hut in Fiji, but without the view.
Good luck finding any natural light once you're inside Damon's. Instead, you'll have to rely on your sense of smell and the low, ominous glow from hanging lamps covered in tiki-mask cutouts. Follow your nose to thick slabs of prime rib and pan-roasted pork chops, both of which offer savory alternatives to the sweet drinks coming from the bar. Of course, the pile of thinly fried onions that completely obscure your rib-eye will help soak up a bit of that Pacific rim flavor as well. 317 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale; 818-507-1510.
You get the feeling at the Bull Pen in Redondo Beach that time didn't just stop -- it never showed up at all. The deep vinyl booths inside the 1948 eatery never even bothered to turn that predictably kitschy bright red. They're deep blue at the Bull Pen, and the end of each one still sports a phone jack that no doubt was used to connect longtime regulars with whatever call happened to come in for them. The low, glass lamps show off an array of old sailing vessels, and long ago someone forgot to take down the Christmas lights, so there they hang. The happy hour prices never seem to have caught up, either, with less-than-$3 beers and a constantly churning popcorn machine at one end of the haphazardly spaced barroom.
You won't find Old Man Time stepping on the toes of the bar regulars, either. Most of the salty beachgoers who've bellied up to the bar never seem to leave, opting instead to learn about the world outside through the historical anecdotes of Dodgers announcer Vin Scully as he lulls on in the background. Ten-ounce New York strip steaks are pushed out from the kitchen with alarming regularity, given the sedentary lifestyle of the barstool public at the Bull Pen. Still, this is some quality grilled beef, especially when it's served with a plate of scrambled eggs as a $13 hangover cure. Some folks also go for the patty melt, a supremely cheesy plate of ground beef and sautéed onions that's been sandwiched between a couple of slices of grilled bread. A few bites in and your mind starts to wander toward a life spent inside the Bull Pen, forever chewing as the world blows by out the glass block windows, as timeless as Scully's voice. 314 Ave. I, Redondo Beach; 310-375-7797.
Talk about a change of scenery. Near the corner of Eighth and Irolo in what is undeniably Koreatown, you'll find Taylor's Steakhouse. Outside is awash in hard sidewalks, password-only hipster bars, taco trucks and noodle houses that double as karaoke rooms. But inside Taylor's Steakhouse, the hand-carved wood paneling seems as integral to the building's structural core as the waitresses. The red naugahyde booths are buttoned up tight and buffed to a serious shine, often reflecting the only dim light in the windowless dining room. The deep wide-backed round booths have been pulling change from the pockets of unsuspecting businessmen and carnivorous out-of-towners since 1953, a time well before that boba place down the street ever thought of selling chewy drinks.
On pure steak alone, you probably won't do better than Taylor's. Their signature culotte steak is a 10-ounce sirloin end cut prized for its thickness and tender texture when cooked correctly, which it always is here. Bites of wonderfully salty and seared steak seem to jump right into your mouth; how else can you explain its quick departure? You'll only really notice the disappearance when you reach down for another forkful and come up with a crust of buttery garlic bread. It's been sitting underneath the rest of your dinner this whole time, and has now been infused with beefy, salty, oniony juices. Gluten be damned, this is a slice of garlic bread heaven that will make you realize you've died and gone to Taylor's. 3361 W. Eighth St., Koreatown; 213-382-8449.
What do you really want in an old-school steak joint? Taylor's has the beef, the Galley has the stiff drinks, Damon's has the overdone decor, and the Bull Pen has the clientele. But Dal Rae in Pico Rivera? They've got the parking lot.
Well, it has a lot more than just parking spaces, but the sheer size of the sweeping lot is sure to be the first thing you notice when you turn in from Washington Boulevard. There must be a hundred spaces back there, each wide enough to park the Love Boat in. It doesn't get any more old-school than that.
Until you walk in, that is. The 1950s room is subtle, but wonderfully dated in that upscale, blue-haired way. Lots of mirrors to check for lipstick smears on dentures, plenty of fake leaves and bushes to hide the lack of fire exits. Yawning black booths to shade you from the hanging lights, with impeccable waiters refilling drinks in matching black bow ties. They carry those wide sticks to push little flecks of bread onto the floor, too, and the female servers will check back in at just the right time, dropping the words "hon" and "sugar" like so many crumbs. Should you find yourself at Dal Rae for a celebration, reserve the banquette table that surrounds the baby grand piano. It's so perfectly of-an-era that it makes you want to croon along with the Jello-soft melodies coming from the hidden speakers, if such a thing weren't seriously frowned upon here.
For dinner, you'll be having the pepper steak. It's the one listed inside its own box on the menu, the one the waitresses will point you to when you seem lost in sea of shrimp cocktails and lesser cuts of beef. Absolutely snowed in by cracked peppercorns, thin chips of bacon and sautéed green onions, the pepper steak feels like the only extravagant meal you'll ever need to pay for again -- especially when you spring for the starter Caesar salad that's spun tableside.
With the elevator-lite music, the irreproachable waitstaff and the ink dark booths full of everyone's grandparents, Dal Rae is almost the distillation of an old-school steak place. Plus it has one hell of a parking lot. 9023 Washington Blvd., Pico Rivera; 562-949-2444.