Julienne may be the last restaurant of its type in Los Angeles County, a patio café in the heart of San Marino’s small downtown that rolls the experiences of La Coupole, Mayberry R.F.D. and the Bullocks Wilshire tearoom all into one. Julienne is a white-glove lunchroom at the nexus of old society and new cuisine, and the provider of rosemary-raisin Parmesan crisps to half the parties in Pasadena. Julienne is as central to San Marino as Ciro’s is to East L.A. or Nate ’n Al to Beverly Hills.
Beethoven scherzos skitter through the plant-strewn patio; regulars park their dogs just outside the potted flowers that define the outdoor dining area. The high-ceilinged inside of the place, though it cannot be more than a decade or so old, has the bumpy, faded elegance of a century-old Parisian café. The plates — even the hamburger plates — are decorated with a profusion of herbs, flowers and ruffly purple kale. At Julienne, you need never fear rowdy hot spices or inappropriate doses of garlic.
On a sunny day, the tables at Julienne are jammed with the genetically gifted, whose perfect cheekbones, even teeth and straight, blond hair seem to have been polished through several generations of careful breeding, a vivid cross section of people who wouldn’t have talked to you in high school. Half of the appeal of Julienne seems to be the intramural schmoozing that takes place in the half-hour or so between signing in with the hostess and finally landing a table. If you belong here, you will inevitably run into half a dozen people you know. (Gloomy days bring out a different, slightly frumpier crowd, largely composed of people who like the food at Julienne better than the inevitable wait.)
Julienne is attached to a sort of gourmet shop that features exquisitely glazed French country crockery alongside expensive jars of mustard and takeout containers of homemade pâté and whiskey-caramel sauce; pretty salads, elaborate entrées and scoops of Fosselman’s ice cream; pretty table linens and fashionable cookbooks.
As soon as you are seated, each person is brought a small plate containing two slices of the house’s soft rosemary-raisin bread and a tiny individual ramekin of butter; you need not fear your great-aunt Sherry contaminating a shared bread basket with her fingers.
Appetizers, per se, are not really served at Julienne, but there is generally a soup available, sometimes the smooth carrot-ginger purée you might find at any Melrose café, or a bland, dairy-free salmon chowder flavored with a microgram of dill. On cold, rainy days, there might be a roughly strained cabbage soup flavored with pancetta.
You would expect a place like Julienne to serve genteel luncheon salads, and it does: a basil-and-spinach salad laden with roasted pine nuts; a “South western” caesar, zapped with smoky chile dressing and garnished with grilled beef filet; a respectable, if sweet, Chinese chicken salad sprinkled with crunchy noodles. And every day sees a different quiche, with a layer of wadded cooked spinach where you’d expect the crust and a sleek, often broccoli-infused custard.
But the basic currency of the restaurant seems to be the sandwich — soft chicken-salad sandwiches of a sort many of us haven’t tasted since the Bullocks Wilshire tearoom closed down; supersweet roast lamb on hard rolls — halved, and served with a salad as a lunch special. The vegetarian version of pan bagnat, a Provençal specialty normally drenched in oil, features a sort of grilled ratatouille instead of the usual canned tuna on its crusty round roll, and the sandwich isn’t bad, if you’re not expecting a pan bagnat.
The Provençal-style ravioli, stuffed with whatever they happen to have on hand that day, is likable, decked out in minced tomatoes and a basil emulsion and garnished with crunchy toasted bread crumbs. A special of shrimp linguine with Gorgonzola, on the other hand, though carefully prepared, demonstrates all too clearly the reason why Italians shudder when you pair seafood with cheese.
Julienne’s food isn’t necessarily low in calories. One sandwich involves two lengths of sliced baguette jutting heavenward like conning towers of a submarine, glued to the plate with melted Brie, stuffed with more cheese, bits of bacon and chicken. The hamburger is actually one of the very best in town, a big, lean patty on a seeded roll, decorated with sliced ripe tomato, sweet onion relish, mayonnaise and about a dozen different kinds of baby lettuces. It’s kind of twee for a hamburger — not even Pinot has bothered to serve a mizunaburger — but the thing is drippy, bloody, rare, served with a handful of crusty, skin-on French fries that most restaurants would consider a minor specialty.
Julienne is famous for its desserts, presented on a platter that also includes two orchids and enough exotic greenery to inspire three Henri Rousseau paintings: bread pudding; dense, cool lemon soufflé; cream puffs the size of your head. Still, two times out of three, your best choice might be a white-chocolate-chunk macadamia cookie from the takeout shop next door.
2649 Mission St., San Marino; (626) 441-2299. Open for breakfast and lunch Mon.–Sat. Lunch for two, food only, $18–$25. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Recommended dishes: chicken salad; Provençal ravioli; hamburger.