I've been going back and forth with myself on this one: one star, half a star? How do you rate a restaurant where the service is as crisp and professional as it gets, where everybody is made to feel welcome and special, where the crowd is a dizzyingly weird mix of aging rockers, minor stars, industry moguls, leggy blonds and some genuine high-wattage figures? Where the retro setting feels like a cross between Musso & Frank and Dan Tana's, but more elegant. Where the room has a happy buzz and even on a weeknight, it feels like a big night in the city. But — and it's a very big but — the food is mostly mediocre.
Craig's is better than Dan Tana's, certainly, but that's not saying much. Though owner Craig Susser, a genial man with a close shave, a slight swell of a pompadour and a phenomenal memory for faces, worked at Dan Tana's for some 23 years, I guess he didn't spend that much of it dreaming up the menu for the restaurant he wanted to open one day.
At Craig's, Susser is all about the guests. And he's one of the last of the old school maitre d's in town. He knows exactly where guests fit in the pecking order, who should not be seated next to whom, which behind-the-scenes powerbroker has taken a new wife, which of the ladies who lunch needs her martini just so, who's in and who's out.
And yet he's such a gentleman that everyone who walks in the door is made to feel welcome. He also runs the place like an exacting stationmaster runs his trains. On time. Unless some major players arrive unexpectedly, you shouldn't have to wait for your reservation more than 10 or 15 minutes. For a hot restaurant in this town, that's kind of remarkable. He's got his eye on the ball.
And while you're waiting, there's plenty of entertainment at the bar or just watching the front door to see who comes through. One of the "Entourage" gang with an adoring date on his arm? The comedian with the smart political commentary? A guy in a kilt? A woman with a sailor hat cocked over one eyebrow?
OK, I admit that was a low blow, comparing Craig's food to Dan Tana's. Everyone's expecting the menu to be similar, but it isn't. Not really. Only in the fact that they're both retro. But Dan Tana's is old-school Italian, and Craig's is mainstream American with a few pastas and Italian-style main courses thrown in for good measure.
One could wish he and his chef didn't take retro so literally. American salad here is iceberg and romaine lettuce, chopped mozzarella, chickpeas, tomatoes and a few other things in an Italian dressing that could have come — glug, glug — out of a bottle. You can order it regular or "chopped." Fried chicken sounds like a fine idea, and I'd be running there every other week if it were any good, but the batter is too thick and tastes floury, and when it falls off the bird, the inside looks like an old bandage.
That old standby the lettuce wedge is fine, chilled and crisp, napped in the usual blue cheese dressing. Order that, followed by the New York strip, medium-rare with a char (and it really does come out that way) and you'll have a good enough meal at Craig's. The steak itself tastes dry-aged and reveals its flavor bite after bite. The veal chop also is an excellent piece of meat, cooked correctly. But do not under any circumstances pour that little crock of truffle oil-scented gravy on top.
You could be happy too with the heirloom tomatoes and burrata, thick slices of yellow tomatoes topped with creamy fresh burrata. Just remember to ask the kitchen to refrain from drizzling the cheese with that cheap balsamico. Meatballs in tomato sauce, offered as an appetizer, are fluffy and tender, if a bit boring.
Stray from these suggestions and you're on your own. Pastas are so oversauced they're like noodles in soup sauce. Fettuccine Alfredo is overdosed with garlic and cream.
Cioppino is a poor showing for $44, a few shrimp, mussels and clams and a crab leg in tomato sauce that tastes straight out of the jar. Whitefish from Lake Superior is a nice piece of fish woefully overcooked. And barbecued pork ribs, though tender, are coated in an acrid, bitter sauce that overstays its welcome.
Craig's, like Dan Tana's, isn't shy about prices. Fine. But if you're going to charge $30 or $40 for an entree, I'd expect that each one would get its own vegetables. Fried chicken comes with decent mashed potatoes and gravy, but most get a spoonful of carrots and some broccoli florets. That's just plain lazy.
There when needed
The staff seems genuinely surprised that we don't want to take anything home. I actually feel a little embarrassed we're not polishing off our entrees with gusto, the service has been so spot-on. The dining room is a blur of motion as waiters in snappy black jackets with white shirts and black ties and black aprons cross the room. Runners and buspersons are invariably polite, never intrusive, smart about seeing what needs doing.
And we're so comfortable in the curved blue leather booths, framed by dark wood wainscoting. The lighting is soft and flattering, the mood intimate yet vibrating with energy. There's really not a bad table in the house.
Despite the food, we're enjoying ourselves. A bottle of Pio Cesare Barbera helps. Unfortunately, that is one of the few good bottles in the middle price range on the list, which is mostly American. How serious can a wine list that doesn't include vintages be? Better to stick to cocktails, I think, which are classic and well made.
In the end, Craig's is more about conviviality than dining. For a certain set, it's somewhere to go, an ongoing party where the host doesn't stick everyone over 30 in the back room and where — this is important — the noise doesn't come from a pounding rock track but from the honest, happy sounds of people talking and laughing, enjoying a night on the town.
Rating: one star Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 8826 Melrose Ave. (at Robertson Boulevard), West Hollywood; (310) 276-1900; craigs.la.
Price: Soups & salads, $7 to $16; appetizers, $10 to $22; pasta, $20 to $24; main courses, $21 to $44; sides, $10 to $12; desserts, $10 to $12.
Details: Open 5 to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Corkage fee, $25. Valet parking, $7.