“Go to these places now. Don't wait. This may be your last chance to immerse yourself in a vanishing world.” So says Peter Moruzzi, author of the just-published book Classic Dining: Discovering America's Finest Mid-Century Restaurants, a glossy, full-color, coast-to-coast tour of the restaurants your parents or grandparents went to on fancy occasions — many of which are still with us, at least for the time being.
To celebrate the release of the book, this Saturday at 7 p.m. Wacko/La Luz De Jesus Gallery is hosting a party — the Dresden will be pouring their Blood & Sand cocktails, Tam O' Shanter will be making sliders and Lawry's Prime Rib will be giving away 50 of their famous seasoned salt and pepper caddies, customized for the occasion.
Recently we asked Moruzzi to recommend the best of Los Angeles' classics. Turn the page for his picks of this town's 10 Best Classic Mid-Century Restaurants — see them while you still can.
10. Dal Rae:
“Tableside preparation — that' s the key to the Dal Rae. Caesars salad, which is spectacular, done tableside, as well as flaming dishes, also done tableside: steak Diane, bananas Foster, duck a l'Orange, cherries jubilee. It's very theatrical. The idea, and this is what Richard Frank said about the carving cart at Lawry's, is to have the show of the meal be right at the table.” 9023 East Washington Blvd., Pico Rivera; 562-949-2444.
“Their tradition goes back to 1938. The carving cart was invented specifically by the co- founder, Lawrence Frank, who decided that people would want to have this enormous cart come to their table and let them choose the cut of meat they want. Everything would be fresh right there. That is part of tableside theatricality at its finest. They carry on the tradition with the outfits — the waitresses wear the same outfits they've worn since the 30's. the menu is pretty much the same thing — salad, bread, baked potato, and then the stuff that's in the cart. Creamed corn, creamed spinach, gravy, au jus, and all that stuff. They havent' really changed since the '30s. Lawry's also invented having the salad as the first course as opposed to the last course That was where it started. They had salads all year long because they were in California, whereas back east they didn't.” 100 North La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; 310-652-2827.
8. The Dresden:
“Classic lounge restaurant, where Marty and Elayne have been performing since 1982. One side has the formal continental style fine dining booths. Just the décor alone in that half of the restaurant is worth going there. It's incredible — off-white vinyl booths, with the logo embossed in the back of the chairs, custom lighting fixtures, slatted wood dividers, these kind of curling candelabra type sconces. It was redesigned in 1964.” 1760 North Vermont Ave., Los Angeles; 323-665-4294.
“Taylor's is just a great traditional steakhouse in the middle of L.A. Unlike Lawry's, it doesn't have a carving cart, so it's more traditional, but it does have the dark wood walls, black booths, a great big bar, great cocktails and waiters that have been doing it for a long time. They are terrific.” 3361 West 8th St., Los Angeles; 213-382-8449.
“Taix hearkens back to days when a lot of restaurants were themed by Hollywood set dressers. They would be hired to create a theme, and this is a French theme. The current location is from the early '60s, but the décor was brought from other Taix locations that go much further back. It's old French — the chairs, the building, the exterior, the provincial French architecture style where you have stucco and exposed wood called half timbering — the building has a rural French look to it on the exterior. It's more traditional on the interior — dark wood, subdued lighting, white table cloths, and of course the menu is French. 1911 West Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; 213-484-1265.
“Clearman's has fake snow on the roof, and it looks like an enormous log cabin. It's like an old hunting lodge theme. There's sawdust on the floor, and you can throw your peanut shells on the floor too. The waitresses wear these skimpy outfits, Bavarian style, short skirts, a lot of cleavage.” 7247 Rosemead Blvd., San Gabriel; 626-286-8284.
4. The Smoke House:
“This one shares the history of being one of the great Hollywood hangouts for Disney and the other studios — that's where they would go for a cocktail and cheese bread. It just has all the great elements of a mid-century, old English style restaurant. In “The Larry Sanders Show,” they were always saying, 'We're going to the Smokehouse!'” 4420 West Lakeside Drive, Burbank; 818-845-3731.
3. Tam O'Shanter:
“An incredibly well themed restaurant from the '20s. It is the oldest family operated restaurant in Los Angeles. Musso and Frank is older, but they haven't been owned by the same family. It's got a great English/Scottish-looking building, the interior has a big fireplace, and all the flags from the different Scottish clans. Walt Disney was a regular and had a favorite table there. They serve English-style food, and they also have skimpy outfits — slightly Scottish looking.” 2980 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-664-0228.
“A great Hollywood watering hole, been there forever, incredible cocktails, famous for their martinis, sidecars, and manhattans, and they have a little carafe of cocktail that they serve with the main cocktail, so you have two essentially two cocktails. And incredible food — and they have an open charcoal grill, very traditional.
“They have the rear entrance, because in Los Angeles, when the car really started to dominate, the main entrances of a lot of these places went from the street to the rear, because that's where the parking lot was. Like Bullocks Wilshire, and the same is true of all the big department stores that were constructed after the 1920s. You've got to go past the kitchen — and you get to see what's going on there — before you get into the main area.” 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; 323-467-7788.
1. The Derby:
“Here, it's a traditional beef and booze menu. But the theme is interesting, because it's all about horse racing — everywhere you look there's either a trophy, or a photo of a horse, or of a jockey. And they also have live entertainment. They used to have a guy that played multiple instruments at the same time — a one-man band.
“Now when they have music, they have piano, and always have someone singing, and often times they allow the public to sing. It's not really karaoke — karaoke's a whole different ball game, where any old joe just goes up there and reads the lyrics. Here, people who enjoy singing get up and sing. It's a tradition that goes way back, 50, 60 years, where restaurants would have piano bars. The people who sing are not horrible — they generally have some talent. And they're usually singing standards — not contemporary stuff.” 233 East Huntington Drive, Arcadia; 626-441-2430.