Before it was Beach Boulevard, the Orange County road that leads straight to Huntington Beach was known as Highway 39.
That was back when Clifford Ronnenberg's parents owned a dairy and roadside diner, which is now the site of the citified ParkAve restaurant. The retro-style neon spelling out the name at the edge of the parking lot shines like a beacon among tacky motels, new town houses and the usual strip malls. Stanton is not what you'd call fancy, more working class Orange County than upscale. And that's to its credit.
The building is low-slung stone ornamented with an original Sputnik-inspired Googie ball. The restaurant's name is spelled out in a flowing retro script in brass beside the door. Inside, it's retro all the way, and that goes for the classic American fare as well. Oh, with some updates too.
The chef and managing partner is David Slay, a native of St. Louis, who owned several restaurants there before opening the late La Veranda in Beverly Hills in 1989. Now he's back as chef and managing partner at this savvy restaurant. With good, simple cooking, moderate prices, a fun and comfortable atmosphere and a wonderful wine list priced affordably, it's perfect for the times.
Inside, it's cozy as can be, with ruched period textiles at the windows, lots of stone and leather, and a menu with prices that make you wonder if you're seeing right. The waitresses are veterans with a working sense of humor. None of this pretentious "My name is Trina and I'll be taking care of you tonight."
After we order one night and someone comments that they've never seen the words "fresh-clipped" in reference to a salad before, our server asks if we'd like to see the garden. Don't worry, she reassures us, your appetizers will be ready when you get back. She then leads us down a hallway through another larger dining room where a wine dinner has just ended, out the glass doors, pointing us down a path through a verdant park. There, she says, pointing. It's a real kitchen garden in big raised beds, bursting with unruly tomato plants, perfect lettuces and greens, fragrant herbs and vegetables, all for the picking.
Few of the restaurants back in the '50s that inspired ParkAve ever had their own gardens. And that's sort of the idea behind the menu -- classics made with better ingredients.
This is real food. The soft, fluffy bread flecked with herbs is house-baked. My cream of tomato soup is served up in a mug, but it's nothing like childhood's Campbell's tomato soup. This is made from tomatoes from the garden, a little chicken stock and some of those fresh-clipped herbs, including basil. Talk about comfort, this is it, in a mug. Another time I have a quite tasty chicken soup laced with diced vegetables.
Even the simple dinner salad is something special, a mix of those pretty lettuces and teardrop tomatoes. Those fresh-clipped greens appear in a salad embellished with candied fresh walnuts and Danish blue cheese too. There's also a fresh, perky version of baby spinach salad with pepper bacon and a spunky apple cider vinaigrette. And an excellent mozzarella and heirloom tomato salad set down on a smear of pesto and balsamic vinegar. Very nice.
Meanwhile, we're drinking very well for the price. You can order wines by the glass or the carafe, and there's also a page of half-bottles. But when wines such as Melville Chardonnay, Pieropan Soave and Palacios Petalos Bierzo are so fairly priced, I'm going to splurge.
With a Chardonnay, I might suggest a couple of fitting appetizers. They would be the lobster mac 'n' cheese, a dish that's usually overly rich. But this one strikes a perfect balance between al dente pasta, spicy molten cheese and bites of succulent lobster, the whole covered with crunchy buttered breadcrumbs. Another great match is lobster and fresh corn fritters. They're brutti ma buoni, as the Italians would say -- ugly but good -- and ready to dip in a spicy red pepper mayonnaise.
The kitchen has all of the bases covered when it comes to main courses -- a fine burger, a chicken breast with mustard and orange sauce, grilled skirt steak or lamb chops, all at moderate prices and with sides included. Baked salmon comes out moist and tender, drizzled with a hot-and-sweet mustard sauce and served with brown rice and some sauteed spinach. The pork chop is stuffed with green apples, bread, leeks and sultanas. And for $28, you get a 14-ounce bone-in rib-eye steak with full-bodied flavor, though the kitchen sometimes has trouble with the concept of char.
Every main course gets different accompaniments -- risotto, rice, twice-baked cheddar-chive potatoes and roasted or mashed potatoes -- all pretty good.
Modern dishes too
Slay lays on a few contemporary dishes too. Right now he's offering Texas venison medallions with a subtle pear risotto. The flavor of the antelope is lightly gamy, napped in a transparent reduction.
For dessert, go with the house-made ice cream, which comes in flavors that include chocolate chip, peanut butter and cream cheese, from pastry chef Alice Castro and her assistant and sister, Daisy Castro. A small almond cake topped with Sage Ranch honey ice cream makes a perfect pairing. Or what about the warm fruit crumble or bread pudding with a ball of that ice cream on top?
ParkAve may seem like a nostalgic trip down Beach Boulevard, but I'm sorry, the food was never that good anywhere on the boulevard. (I should know: I spent summers driving back and forth to the beach.)
It seems like it took someone who grew up in St. Louis and has enthusiastically adopted California to give Orange County a taste of classic American cooking.