A friend of mine, listening to my restaurant-going schedule, asked wonderingly whether I ever just took a night off and went to Bob's Big Boy. Good question. I know he wanted to hear that I occasionally pigged out on junk food. Not really. But when I want an utterly easygoing meal, I do have a few standbys: Hungry Cat, Pizzeria Mozza, Barbrix or Lou, Palate, Spago for Friday lunch. And now the new House Cafe.
It's in a convenient part of town, on Beverly Boulevard just west of Crescent Heights, midpoint between the Eastside and the Westside. The menu covers a good deal of ground, cuisines and price range. It's open from early in the morning until fairly late at night and for the most part serves food made with skill and care. I'd call the menu, for all its forays into other cuisines, American — the new American, one that reflects the diverse cultures that make up Los Angeles.
The concept had been kicking around the Bruce Marder restaurant group for a while. If you remember, in the '80s, Marder created the definitive easygoing restaurant: the West Beach Cafe in Venice. (He also founded Broadway Deli, Cora's Coffee Shop and Capo in Santa Monica, and Brentwood in you-know-where.)
Marder doesn't do cheap, so don't expect bargain prices. Still, they're moderate enough considering the quality of the ingredients, and he has a real chef behind the stoves, not an over-promoted line cook. That's Ricky Moreno, who worked at Capo. Most of all, with general manager and wine buyer Rod Bonios, he has someone at the front of the house who's there most of the time, remembers faces and offers a real welcome to anyone who steps in the door.
You won't recognize the old Pastis. The space has been brightened, lightened and gussied up in typical Marder style, which means good art on the walls, eclectic details and glassed-in wine storage. There's now a bar with stools, facing a flat-screen TV tuned to the Food Channel so you can watch Giada and Paula Deen and Daisy in full throttle. I'd rather pay attention to what's on my plate.
On warm days, the windows at the front open up onto the sidewalk terrace in front, looking inviting with those woven French bistro chairs in black and cream. But don't be seduced into thinking House Cafe is a French bistro. It's mostly classic California or American food with some oddball Turkish, North African and Italian accents. The polyglot menu features breakfast, sandwiches, stalwart main courses like meat loaf and spaghetti and meatballs all at once, along with a few indulgent items, such as cote de boeuf for two.
It's as if Marder raided all of his restaurants past and present to put together House Cafe's menu. The place is open every day from 8 a.m until 11 p.m. serving more or less the same menu all day long, but so far seems to be fairly quiet except at dinner.
At night, the place hums with a happy energy. Lately, I've been noticing that people seem to be so thrilled to be going out, wherever they may be, that they're more inclined to concentrate on having a good time rather than picking apart the menu with criticisms. And at House Cafe, in fact, there's not much to criticize and there is much to enjoy (with the exception of the sandwiches and burger at lunch, which seem like afterthoughts and could use more seasoning).
The menu has something for everyone. For the ladies who pick at their food, there are generous salads made from meticulously prepared ingredients. The farmers market salad is a medley of vegetables (baby turnip, carrots, zucchini, heirloom tomatoes) on lettuce or with burrata. Remember Chinese chicken salad? Well, here it's light and graceful, perked up with ribbons of radicchio and moist strips of chicken.
I'm always a pushover for artichokes, and I enjoyed the grilled artichoke with aioli. The fried calamari is better than most, featuring big rings of squid that are expertly fried with lemon. You can get a big bowl of steamed clams to share, with plenty of garlicky juices to sop up with your bread. Tacos are unexpectedly good, too, especially the crisp, fatty carnitas heaped into double corn tortillas.
There are pastas, of course, including a fine puttanesca special, and always some kind of ravioli. It could be ricotta and spinach, mushroom or a supple packet filled with Swiss chard leaves and garnished with the ruby stems.
Most of the rustic main courses I've tried have been well executed: a hearty braised lamb shank over couscous, a meaty lamb sparerib special, and the real bargain, a coarse Italian sausage served with polenta.
A small section of the menu lists dishes for two. Fiorentina chicken is basically cooked al mattone — under a brick. But the chicken is a very good one, boneless, and is served sliced on a wooden board, with smashed potatoes and, before it ever arrives, a big bowl of mixed green salad. It's $60, but a complete dinner for two. The same goes for the cote de boeuf, massive enough to seem like a bargain at $65. The beef is aged and tastes expensive grilled to a perfect medium rare.
To drink, there is, first of all, house-made lemonade, which is more like a classic citron pressé — lots of lemon, not too much sugar, plus craft beers and more than 25 wines by the glass. The bottle list is serviceable, if not particularly exciting, but with a number of wines at $40 or less. You can also take home any bottle for 45% off the list price, which doesn't make it exactly a deal, but if you need a bottle, it's there. And if you really, really need a $290 bottle of Caymus "Special Select" Cabernet with your meat, ask for the captain's list.
House Cafe seems perfectly tailored to the neighborhood. You can eat a plate of sausages and polenta for $15 or splurge on a cote de boeuf for two for $65, depending on your mood or your pocketbook. Either way, have pie for dessert, preferably blueberry. You can't get much more American than that.
House Cafe Rating: two stars
Location: 8114 Beverly Blvd. (at Crescent Heights), Los Angeles; (323) 655-5553; http://www.housecafe.com.
Price: Breakfast items, $4 to $16.50; salads, $9.50 to $14; sandwiches, $9.50 to $15.75; appetizers, $6 to $14.50; pasta, $12 to $16.75; main courses, $14 to $26; desserts, $7 to $9. Corkage, $15.
Details: Open 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Beer and wine. Valet parking, $4.50.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. Four stars: Outstanding on every level. Three stars: Excellent. Two stars: Very good. One star: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.