You'll want to get over to the new Brown Derby in Pasadena if only for the bread. Remember the bread at the old Brown Derby? Fragrant, toasted pumpernickel with Parmesan cheese clinging to the surface like virgin snow? Actually, the bread should be warm and soft when it's fresh from the oven, but I've had it crisp and cold, too, so there is no telling, from one day to the next, which it will it be. Doesn't matter. Still good.
Well, the new Brown Derby in Pasadena hit it off with the natives in Pasadena the moment they met, judging from sell-out seating every time I've been.
How can it miss? It's good old American continental food that's familiar, well prepared, served with a touch of fatherliness by the waiters, surely assembled by some Hollywood casting agent, in a legendary ambiance.
For 60 years the Hollywood Brown Derby acted as unofficial headquarters for the Hollywood paparazzi . Movie stars and starlets rendezvoused there, directors and producers sought work there, and movie moguls moved their empire around the leather booths, where table telephones rang constantly for them. The restaurant's demise, which became imminent by 1975 because movie studios moved out of Hollywood, was actually a result of earthquake building reconstruction problems. A search for a new location brought the now owner, Walter P. Scharfe, to a Pasadena landmark, the Lieberg Building, which, like the Hollywood Derby itself, was built in 1926. A perfect marriage.
Recycled 'Wall of Fame'
All the 1,500 caricatures by various artists throughout the years, which once made up the old Derby's so-called "Wall of Fame," historic artifacts, Spanish Renaissance antique furniture, fixtures and equipment, and even booth No. 5, where Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard, were dusted off and recycled. Even some of the old help was brought back, so you'll see a familiar face or two. The result is a slightly smaller restaurant than the original on Vine Street but the recaptured charm is there. You are bound, in fact, to sense a bit of deja vu , even though the clientele is, to say the least, not the same.
The food is as good as old-fashioned American food can be. Not always perfect--not as perfect as the way the French look after things--but certainly decent, dependably good and downright refreshing after a decade of Franco-Italienne-Japonais-Chinois experiments.
Yes, the famous Cobb salad, an old Brown Derby invention, was excellent. The only difference is in the way the chicken is cut. The original recipe called for dicing or coarsely grinding the chicken. Today's ground chicken goes through a spaghetti-like grinder, which makes the chicken look like tiny cylinders, or worse. Otherwise, taste, freshness and beauty are all there.
Yes, the grapefruit cake is still intact--moist, handsome and delicious. And so is the apple pie. In fact, if anyone wants to get an idea of what real American apple pie should be like, this one is it. Flaky crust, served warm, with ice cream, too.
The Cobb salad and grapefruit cake were the first items I tried as an establishing shot of the place. They passed, so I went on to the soups. Madame Liz' (Elisabeth Khittl-Scharfe, the late wife of the owner) baked creamed pea soup with crab meat and curry was spicy and quite hearty. A broccoli soup was rather thin, but who cares?
Fettuccine and linguine are on the menu, one with seafood, the other with chicken. My chicken pasta tasted like clam sauce pasta. It wasn't. And that's OK. But don't expect Italian pasta. What you get here is an American interpretation thereof--a bit on the soft side and very saucy, just the way Americans like their pasta. It was still good.
Appetizers Large Enough for Two
Nice thing about the Derby menu is that the appetizers are so large they would constitute several full orders at experimental restaurants, where portions range in size from quail egg to tomato. These appetizers are actually enough for two. Oysters Rockefeller was a huge platter of oysters. There is also the Derby cocktail, which consists of crab legs, celery and avocado, escargot Provencale, which we did not try, and a vegetarian pate, which should give pate lovers something to nibble on with their delicious pumpernickel toast.
There is chicken salad and a palace court salad, and a cold poached salmon with a mustard and pepper sauce that also might appeal to salmon fans.
The usual continental seafood fare that used to be plastered on every continental restaurant menu in Los Angeles B.F.R. (Before French Restaurants) has reappeared en force. Remember lobster thermidor? Sand dabs "almondine" (that's how it was spelled in the old menu). Remember English dover sole "mueniere" (meunier)? There is little neck clams "mariniere" (meaning "marinara") and salmon Florentine. They're back.
Among the new things are the Cajun prawns, which, warns the menu, are "a little hot." The menu follows another American custom of providing soup or salad, vegetables and bread with the dinner. Isn't that a welcome change for a change?
Another American thing about this place is the prices--moderate.
And if you thought that the days of the dress code in restaurants requiring coat and tie for men were dead, you're wrong. The Derby has decided on a resurrection. But who cares? There are things certain restaurants can get away with that others can't, no matter how outdated. This one does. And I'm willing to bet that no one in his right mind would make a fuss.
So if you can't wait to celebrate the rebirth of the good old American cooking (at good old American prices), that bring back memories, even if only of the bread, this is it.
The Brown Derby, 911 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (213) 469-5151 or (818) 796-7139. Open for lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Friday 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturdays until 11:30 p.m.; closed Sundays. Private parties available. Major credit cards accepted. Valet parking available. Reservations required; coat and tie required for men. Average dinner $14.