Hollywood has Musso & Frank Grill, and West Hollywood has that lovable old hussy, the Formosa Cafe. For a squinting glimpse of old Hollywood glamour, Burbank turns to the SmokeHouse.
It's a joint that's been serving up prime rib and iceberg wedges since 1946. Where Bing Crosby and Bob Hope sated their appetites. Where Frank Sinatra ate his filet mignon sauteed with tomatoes, peppers and onions and served over linguine. Order the Steak Sinatra and see if you share Frank's tastes.
In its current location, where it moved in 1949, across from Warner Bros., the SmokeHouse has been a decades-spanning draw for actors, writers, even extras. Legend has it that you used to be able to walk into the restaurant and see tables full of costumed cowboys and Indians that had wandered over during breaks in filming.
Burl Ives brought James Dean for lunch. Cary Grant and Rock Hudson wetted their whistles here. Captain & Tennille performed in the lounge in the early '70s before hitting it big. (For younger readers: Google them or ask your Aunt Martha.) And George Clooney spent so much time at the SmokeHouse during his years shooting “ER” at Warner Bros. that he named his production company after the restaurant.
Today, diners still slide into the crescent-shaped red leatherette booths and strain just a bit to read the menus by the gas-style wall lamps. The wood paneling practically compels you to order a martini or a Manhattan. If that fails, then the worn wood and green neon COCKTAILS sign pointing to the sweeping bar ought to do the trick. The glamour has faded a bit, though. The foamy ceiling tiles are pockmarked, the bathroom has the ambience of an airport loo, and the woman who walks through the dining rooms hawking long-stemmed roses adds a fleeting awkwardness.
The menu spans steaks, barbecue, sandwiches, seafood and a small vegetarian section, with an entry in the appetizer section that proclaims The World's Greatest Garlic Bread. It's hard to argue. It's garlicky and cheesy, crisp on the edges and all buttery gooiness in the center. You know you shouldn't like it, but you do. The French onion soup has a beefy background with sweet, caramelized onions and Parmesan center stage.
Fish and chips comes with a lightly battered Alaskan halibut, crisp and firm. Thick steak fries and a tangy, chunky tartar sauce round out the plate. A bowl of sweet and tart cabbage slaw with peanuts sprinkled on top comes on the side.
The baseball-sized filet mignon is perfectly charred at medium rare, the aged beef tender and lean. The barbecue dishes share a sweet, spicy barbecue sauce glaze. The chicken is moist, the tri-tip thinly sliced and underwhelming. The hickory-smoked baby back ribs are the standout. The juicy meat peels away from the bone if you look at it hard. The seafood trio is uneven, with grilled salmon on the dry side, large shrimp mired in a roux-like garlic butter, and a tender sole (the catch of the day) light and flavorful.
The SmokeHouse offers about 20 sides, but we stuck with the traditional steakhouse trifecta of mushrooms, creamed spinach and potatoes. The sauteed mushrooms taste not much more interesting than if they'd come from a can. But the creamed spinach is the floury, creamy, brilliant green mess you remember from your days swilling Shirley Temples. Stuffed potatoes taste like Thanksgiving at the in-laws', cheesy smashed potatoes piped back into the skin and sprinkled with bacon. Mashed potatoes are buttery with a hint of cream and garlic. But the star of the sides is the sweet potato, glistening with butter and brown sugar.
The dessert tray includes a fruit tart, carrot cake, sliced strawberries and whipped cream, and other offerings we failed to notice while focused on the chocolate bundt cake and chocolate mousse. Really, it's just not fair to a carrot cake to place it next to a bundt cake dressed in warm chocolate syrup and plated with ice cream, raspberries and mandarin orange slices. The only problem? When you're dining with a 12-year-old, chocolate bundt cake becomes, for the rest of eternity, “chocolate butt cake.” The chocolate mousse, on its tidy crust of chocolate cookie crumbs, is dense but flavorful. And it's not as easy to squeeze scatological humor from the words “chocolate mousse.”
Near the end of our meal, a man came clutching a camera, explaining that he would like to give us a complimentary picture to remember our meal. We just stared at him for a moment, then squeezed together and smiled on command. Later, as we were walking out, he held out two paper-framed pictures that he was selling, with a special deal if we bought both, like we'd just come off a ride at Magic Mountain. We left with a complimentary postcard featuring our photo surrounded by images of the restaurant. Suddenly the SmokeHouse felt more kitsch than Cary Grant.
So in my old Hollywood/Burbank script, the diner would order garlic bread, a full rack of baby back ribs with creamed spinach and sweet potato on the side. He'd split the bundt cake (he would not call it “butt cake”) with the classy dame beside him. Then they'd stroll out arm in arm. And nobody would offer to sell them their photograph.
REBECCA BRYANT is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other publications.
Where: 4420 W. Lakeside Drive, Burbank
Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
More info: (818) 845-3731, smokehouse1946.com