The Dal Rae at Christmas — freaking hell, the Dal Rae at Christmas, a pulsing, meat-scented wonderland of dark wood and smoked mirrors and shrimp cocktails as big as spaniel pups, Old-Fashioneds pulsing with sugar, tiny lightbulbs of such profusion and such blinking complexity that it can feel as if you are trapped on the inside of a vintage Rock-Ola. That Marvin Gaye song coming from the back of the room — that's tonight's master of the piano bar, who manages to make his modified karaoke versions of KRLA oldies sound an awful lot like Huggy Bear's finest, although the density of cardigans surrounding him is such that it may take you a moment to realize that this is the same place where you used to come to hear old guys sing Dean Martin songs to an appreciative audience of pinky-ring aficionados.
This corner of Pico Rivera has surely changed since the days when the biggest Ford plant in California was just down the street, or even when Northrop ran its secret operations out of the plant. The enormous complex is a shopping mall now, although not really the kind you'd travel great distances to visit, and the lunchtime crowds of union bosses and military contractors have mostly gone away. The restaurant, a few feet off Route 19, the old thoroughfare leading from Long Beach to Santa Anita, once was populated with horsey types, one hears, and there are still trophy cases in the lobby, but that business seems to have gone away, too.
Yet here we are, waiting 45 minutes past the hour of our reservation, in the land that time forgot, where men, even the young ones, wear blazers when they're not rocking reindeer sweaters, and the women wear sparkly pantsuits, where grotesque elf dolls writhe with terrible life and where, when a waitress apologizes that she will not be able to make Caesar salad tableside for a couple of weeks, until the holiday madness dies down, the half-dozen people crammed into the banquette sigh with disappointment. Even the ones who don't like Caesar salad look forward to the ceremonial pulping of the anchovies. (They settle for hot spinach salad with bacon instead.)
There was a time when restaurants like the Dal Rae were thick on the ground in Los Angeles, manly places with lushly upholstered booths, heroic tumblers of Scotch, and steaks as thick as the novels of Irwin Shaw. A Dal Rae meal begins with a trough-size relish tray, cherry peppers and celery stalks and cucumbers of tremendous girth, and continues with baskets of cheese toast that taste like Pepperidge Farm Goldfish transformed into oily bread.
Are there snails? Sure, huge ones, nestled into store-bought shells, drenched in garlic butter and served with special spring-loaded snail tongs of a sort you may not have seen outside a Charles Laughton movie. Fried shrimp? Served in a ceramic boat, with toast as its sail. (Rubbery shrimp scampi, awash in garlic, is perhaps not the best call here.) If you're not in the mood for oysters Rockefeller or raw ahi on toast — the Dal Rae is getting elaborate these days — you can still get teriyaki tidbits, which is to say broiled filet trimmings with canned chiles and cheese. It tastes just like 1964.
Some people swear by the prime rib here, which comes in shocking-pink slabs big enough to serve as home plate, and why not? It's not what you're going to find on your plate at Campanile, but it's bloody and salty and reasonably tender, it comes with a little cup of strong horseradish-flavored cream, and it will provide you with great sandwiches for the rest of the week. The roast duck, laid over some miscellaneously fruity sauce, is overcooked even for duck, although when you eat it with the red cabbage it's OK.
But you're at the Dal Rae. You are paying quite a bit of money for this privilege. You are going to get the pepper steak — a nice hunk of shell steak, an accurate medium rare if that's the way you want it, crusted with cracked pepper and frosted with a salty slurry of bacon and sauteed green onions that probably could enliven tofu. (If you are between paychecks, you can have a hamburger steak done the same way.) It's not Jar, but that's kind of the point. And when the waitress asks if you want her to put in an order for a chocolate soufflé, you will say yes. Because you are a sport, and because that is the way it's done.
DAL RAE | 9023 E. Washington Blvd., Pico Rivera | (562) 949-2444 | dalrae.com | Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Mon.-Thurs., Sun., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. | All major CC | Full bar | Valet parking | Appetizers $9.95-$34; main courses $17.95-$46.50 | Recommended dishes: spinach salad, pepper steak