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Lubach’s: Tradition Is a Main Course

The San Diego landscape may be increasingly crowded with eateries, but the true, classic restaurant seems in danger of disappearing.

In the traditional sense, a restaurant is a full-service establishment that offers a broad menu, caters at least somewhat to individual whims and emphasizes service and solid comfort. The newer breed of eateries that simply grill meats and fish and slap them on a plate with a scoop of rice are, stylistically, closer to fast-food establishments.

Lubach’s can be staid and stodgy in its approach, but when you slip into one of the deep banquettes at this 33-year-old Harbor Drive landmark, you know you have taken a seat in a genuine restaurant of the old school. The broad room stretches to accommodate a sizable crowd, and conversations bounce off the high ceiling to merge into an animated buzz. Both these factors give the sense of being out and about, which sometimes is very desirable. Service, so little understood these days and so often wretched, is unobtrusive and correct at Lubach’s; these waiters simply take care of their guests without imposing on them.

The menu likewise designates Lubach’s a member of the shrinking fraternity of formal, full-service restaurants. Menus have shrunk steadily over the decades, and to read those from the 1950s and ‘60s is an education; many, for example, offered extensive lists of soups, vegetable side dishes and relishes as a matter of course, as well as dozens of entrees. Lubach’s offers five soups, which, if Oriental restaurants are excluded, probably makes it the local record holder. The menu also offers a couple of a la carte vegetables, which may not seem like earthshaking news but indicates that consumers have a few more options here than at the great run of eating places.

Quite Continental

Of the many places that claim to serve Continental cooking, Lubach’s, which makes no such claim, actually does. Dishes that demand a certain amount of preparation abound, such as lobster thermidor and Newburg (recommended only during the local lobster season), immense shrimp in a classic French curry sauce, a saute of beef tenderloin cubes with mushrooms, and even a chopped beefsteak with onions and browned butter. None of these are difficult to prepare, but they do require a little more attention and effort than most places are willing to expend these days.

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The appetizer list is basically a rundown of luxury seafoods, which begins with blue-point oysters on the half shell and culminates in an extravagant plate that teams the oysters with shrimp, Dungeness crab legs and chunks of lobster. Herring, a necessity on any traditional menu, appear in the typical bath of sour cream, but, presumably because proprietor R.C.A. (Ray) Lubach is from Holland, the list also offers Dutch Maatjes herring.

Oysters Rockefeller, the old standby given indifferent treatment by many kitchens, seems quite at home here. The six plump oysters arrived steaming in their shells beneath crusted coverlets of spinach, and tasted as they should, although it must be mentioned that too many small bits of shell remained in several of them.

Other starters that have become difficult to find are commonplace here. Lubach’s signature salad, which is imitated at one or two other leading restaurants, consists of nothing more than crisp romaine tossed with tart, lemony, homemade mayonnaise, and is likable for its simplicity and fresh flavors.

Among the five soups are three that San Diego holds dear--French onion, lobster bisque and clam chowder, with the fourth a soup du jour--but the fifth has the longest tradition of all, although it has virtually vanished from local menus. This is the green mock turtle, long a mainstay of the Grant Grill (which Lubach opened before opening his own establishment in 1956) and a hearty concoction that is hard not to like. As murky as a gumbo and almost gravy-like in texture, the soup is rich with chopped, hard-boiled eggs and bits of meat (calf’s head typically is used), and the splash of sherry added at the table gives it an old-fashioned but suave and invigorating flavor.

Sets the Tone

The mock turtle soup sets the tone for the entree list, which devotes itself solidly to massive presentations of prime meats and seafoods. It is here that the full-service aspect of this restaurant really asserts itself. Shrimp, for example, appear in the skewered San Diego classic called shrimp Cabrillo; charcoal-broiled and doused with garlic butter, and in the excellent shrimp curry. This last is totally Western in style, with the shrimp placed in a mild cream sauce flavored only lightly with curry powder and absent the massive doses of ginger and garlic that would be found in an Indian curry. The presentation does, however, include some of the condiments, such as currants, chopped peanuts and shredded coconut, that make a curry seem so exotic in Western eyes.

Salmon appears grilled and finished with herb butter or, more elegantly, poached and served with an ocean of hollandaise sauce. The guest who ordered this commented that she was so accustomed to seeing “cilantro and bell peppers and all that nouvelle Southwestern stuff that to see hollandaise almost seems unreal.” In truth, this beautiful serving was a reminder of the pleasures of the uncomplicated but good cooking that used to be more easily come by.

Calf’s liver also appears less frequently on menus, but Lubach’s still serves a giant steak smothered with sauteed onions and crisp bacon strips. The waiter remembered to ask what doneness was prefered--liver is best on the rare to medium-rare side--and the kitchen sent out a tender, handsome serving that was nearly hidden beneath its garnish of melting onions. A bouquet of peppery watercress, quite the right accent for this sort of meat, took up a corner of the plate.

The menu naturally includes prime rib and a couple of steaks, but it also offers double-sized lamb chops, whole Dover sole meuniere, roast duck, sea bass sauteed in lemon butter and chicken finished on the charcoal broiler.

The pastry cart is a travesty of second-rate-looking cakes, but Lubach’s continues to offer crepes Suzettes , prepared at the table by the captain and a sweet, buttery reminder of the reason that table-side cookery, now rarely found and dismissed as declasse by some food snobs, was once a hallmark of restaurant cooking.

Lubach’s old-fashioned nature is charming in most ways, although it would not lose any character were it to bring the wine list into the 1980s. Chardonnay is an exceptionally popular wine today, but Lubach’s list offers only two of them, and the choice in most other varieties is equally limited.

LUBACH’S

2101 North Harbor Drive

232-5129

Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Credit cards accepted.

Dinner for two, including a moderate bottle of wine, tax and tip, $70 to $110.


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