Where Auld Lang Syne Still Counts : Bob Burns restaurant thrives by preserving the past, accommodating the present

What becomes of old-fashioned restaurants when the years--and their former customers--start passing them by? Some simply slip out of business, giving up the ghost more or less gracefully, as have Scandia, the Cock n' Bull, Carl Andersen's Chatham and the Tail o' the Cock in recent years. Others just keep limping along somehow, probably losing money, probably blaming restaurant critics and a fickle public and almost everybody but themselves.

Other old-fashioned restaurants remake themselves in a contemporary image in an attempt to find new life, new credibility. When this remake consists of little more than a fresh paint job in the dining room and the promiscuous appendage of goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and Hawaiian tuna to the menu, it doesn't usually work for long. But when it is integral and intelligent--when the food is genuinely improved in quality--it can be wonderfully successful.

Bob Burns in Santa Monica is one of these successes. Opened in 1960 (there are two other, newer Bob Burnses in Newport Beach and Woodland Hills, and the same family owns the unabashedly up-to-date Brentwood Bar & Grill in Brentwood), it is a living, thriving restaurant today, better than it has ever been, and well-prepared to compete in the contemporary restaurant environment. Yet the updating it has obviously done is hard to spot.

To begin with, Bob Burns probably looks exactly the same as it did the day it opened. The decor is Scottish-themed (you know, Robbie Burns: "Scots, wha hae," and all that), and undeniably corny with old prints on the walls of notable Scots in kilts, bright plaid carpeting, and a combination of Caledonian brown leatherette booths and rather ugly high-backed chairs upholstered in red. But the place still somehow feels good: It's crowded, the customers are chattering and laughing happily, and you can't help noticing the huge, succulent portions of food being served.

There are admittedly some stabs at modernization on the menu: ahi sashimi; salad of bufala mozzarella, basil, and tomato; Cajun chicken. But apart from a few such regular items and an occasional overly ambitious or just plain silly daily special (e.g., that perfectly good ribeye steak served one evening with Madeira sauce and walnuts --why?) , the catalogue of dishes offered here is mostly a pure joy for lovers of old-time American/continental food to read.

Here, for instance, are oysters Rockefeller, crab Louis, rainbow trout "almondine," roast duckling with Grand Marniere sauce, veal Oscar, Colorado double-cut lamb chops, steaks galore. And though the skill of the kitchen in preparing these culinary glories of a bygone day is variable, the raw materials used are fresh and of very good quality, and the food in general is just fine.

One night a group of us chowed down happily in a big, plush corner booth on baskets of Parmesan garlic bread and (not on the menu, but always available) an unusual pesto and creamed spinach bread, both chewy and damp and very garlicky but quite addictive; large and entirely credible Caesar salads; house-cured gravlax of Norwegian king salmon, attractively formed into a crown shape, surrounded by paper-thin slices of cucumber and an excellent dill sauce; a beautiful hunk of culotte steak, charred and rare as ordered, in a light green-peppercorn sauce; a "royal steak-o-bob" (talk about corny) of skewered filet mignon, mushrooms, and green peppers, served over herb-infused rice with both bordelaise and bearnaise sauces on the side (all of this surprisingly tasty); a rather bland but moist and tender venison special cloaked in a well-made black currant port sauce and a serving of the restaurant's "famous" double-thick Colorado lamb chops, which were slightly gamy (a character I happen to like) but perfectly cooked.

With the main dishes came a choice of middling French fries, goofy but strangely enjoyable cheddar-stuffed potato halves or textbook baked potatoes, and a veritable cornucopia of fresh vegetables, including a couple of spears of al dente asparagus, a little mound of genuine corn, some neatly-turned carrots and turnips, and a scattering of snow peas. (Entree prices also include soup or salad. ) I have had worse food than this in many restaurants with far more exalted reputations.

To be fair, I must add that I was less taken with a special of fresh abalone on another occasion--indeed fresh enough, but obscured with a soggy, puffy egg batter. And I'm not terribly fond of the various seafood salads that are always offered as specials here: lobster, shrimp and scallops with assorted greens and Maui onions, spinach leaves and assorted shellfish in lemon-butter dressing, salmon filet with grilled vegetables, and such. They tend to be heavy with butter and/or cream, and entirely too busy with lettuces and herbs and other little accents.

On the other hand, even some of the self-consciously contemporary stuff on the menu works pretty well. The aforementioned ahi sashimi, its peculiar garnish of a thin-sliced, fanned-out strawberry aside, consists of three thin slabs of beautiful tuna in light soy dressing, garnished with marinated ginger and an oyster shell filled with liquefied wasabi. Not bad at all. And the crab and lobster cakes offered as a special one evening were as good as any crab cakes in the city, perfect in consistency, full of flavor, with pleasant dill and Chardonnay-cream sauces (shades of nearby Michael's!) on the side.

At lunchtime, the appetizers and salads at Bob Burns are mostly priced the same as they are at dinner and in a few cases are actually higher (for instance, the spinach salad with bay shrimp, $13.50 at night and $13.95 for lunch).

But smaller portions of many of the regular dinner entrees are available at lower prices, including the steak-o-bob and a good hunk of Pacific swordfish with bearnaise, and there is a mouth-watering array of classic sandwiches, from the club to the Reuben to the tuna melt to molasses-barbecued pork (shades of Michael's yet again!).

Though the wine list here doesn't begin to approach that at the Brentwood Bar & Grill, the California selection is strong, and there are some bargains lurking here and there if anybody cares to seek them out. For instance, '89 Trimbach Gewurztraminer for $18, '89 Edna Valley Chardonnay for $26, and 1979 Chateau Talbot for $38.

One other nice thing about Bob Burns is the service, which tends to be professional, solicitous and good-humored. When we asked one night if our quite agreeable desserts--some good, old-style, no-frills coconut cake and a buttery apricot crumble with Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream--were homemade, our waitress replied merrily, "No, but we buy them from somebody who knows how to make them better than we could."

Bob Burns

202 Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica. (213) 393-6777.

Open from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday (lunch menu until 3 p.m, daily, brunch menu until 3 p.m. Sunday, then dinner menu). All major credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $38 to $85.

Recommended dishes: Caesar salad (offered as salad choice with entrees), $8 a la carte; ahi sashimi, $10.95; gravlax, $10.95; royal steak-o-bob, $15.95; swordfish, $22; culotte steak, $23.

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