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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Packard Grill: Nice Wheels, Good Meals

Looking forlorn at one end of a gray and nondescript Highland Park mini-mall, the Packard Grill’s exterior is at first glance equally gray and nondescript, bland enough that it manages to swallow the building’s many charming Art Deco features.

And, tooling down the road with the sun in your eyes, it’s also pretty easy to miss the bright red ’41 Packard front end--hood, fenders, headlights gleaming in the sun--that bursts out of the roof: a ‘50s advertising throwback that is simply wonderful.

The roof ornament gives a clue to the interior design: Packard automobile posters and ads from old magazines (“The 1946 Packard Clipper: America’s No. 1 Glamour Car”), memorabilia and so on. And the Deco exterior should prepare you for the hip Zolotone walls and high-backed booths with matching Zolotone tables and the soothing jazz coolly washing down over the customers, a mix of Mt. Washington intelligentsia and Highland Park working-class families. Tucked around a corner is a miniature bar with four stools, two tables and a television.

Why the Packard auto motif? “Because this was a Packard agency,” says owner Bob Richman, a onetime automobile dealer who bought the lot from his partner, William Noll, back in the ‘60s. “And I liked the way the original building looked.” The restaurant is in the car showroom built by Noll in 1938; the mini-mall is a conversion of the service bays. Richman’s restaurant restoration won an award from the Highland Park Heritage Trust, a rarity for a commercial building.

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The Packard’s most appealing dishes usually can be found among the nightly specials. There is always a fresh fish offering or two; the best I’ve had was a fat little chunk of salmon in a reduced cream-butter sauce over rice. There is sometimes a tostada or other quasi-Mexican treat like shrimp ranchera --large Gulf crustaceans in a marinara sauce with a splash of salsa , onions and peppers accompanied by black beans, avocado, and rice mixed with corn.

The regular dinner menu includes two fine fowl dishes, Dijon chicken and chicken prosciutto. The Dijon plate has a lightly sauced sweet-and-spicy chicken breast; the prosciutto, a grilled breast wrapped in a generous piece of ham, covered with a wild-mushroom mix that serves as an oddly pleasing counterpoint to the ham.

Baby-back pork ribs are just OK--the sauce is good, but the ribs are most always dried out--and an orangey grilled steak marinated in citrus is tender, albeit thin. The burgers are basic--mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato--but better than most.

The rice and pasta portion of the menu ranges from the also basic tomato-basil spaghettini to an excellent Southwestern chicken chile pesto--chunks of mildly spicy marinated chicken with roasted shallots, wild mushrooms and chile pesto sauce over basmati rice. Also good is the tequila chicken fettuccine in a cream sauce with jalapenos, tequila, cilantro and soy sauce.

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There are four main-course salads: Cobb, Caesar, grilled chicken and Italian chopped. The Caesar is flat and not very satisfying; the Cobb and Italian are much better, with a hearty mix of greens, cheeses, tomatoes, olives and whatnot. Best is the grilled chicken, a mixed-green offering with Gouda cheese, scallions and a breast soaked in Dijon dressing.

The best dessert by far is the chocolate bourbon cake, a brownielike offering with a thick, hard chocolate crust. The dose of bourbon is strong enough to spark a WCTU boycott and the chocolate could fuel Willy Wonka’s factory for a year. If you are lucky enough to be here one of the few days each week it’s on the menu--reserve a slice before you even order dinner.

There’s Budweiser and Heineken on tap as well as an assortment of bottled domestic and imported brews. Wines are sold by the glass only, but there is a decent selection at $2.45 per, including a Roland Thevenin blanc, a Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and white zinfandel, a Troubadour merlot and a D’Aquino Bardolino red.

The wheeled Packard promised luxury and quality and attention to detail for auto aficionados. While not luxurious, the Packard Grill does offer quality and attention to detail for food aficionados--at very reasonable prices. This is one grill worth taking a spin in.

Packard Grill, 4301 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park; (213) 223-1200. Lunch and dinner daily, Saturday breakfast, Sunday brunch. Beer and wine. Parking in lot. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$25.


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