Real Food for Real People : Pacific Dining Car's new branch celebrates mid-American abundance--and that means big and meaty (and expensive) meals

Ruth Reichl is Times food editor and restaurant critic

It's hard to imagine Santa in a really sunny sky. So even if you were born in California, come Christmas you start hoping for snow.

Thanksgiving never seems quite Californian either: Pilgrims and palm trees just don't go together.

This is the time of year when a lot of Californians start leaning toward the east. If you are among them, you'll be happy to hear that Santa Monica's newest restaurant makes a person feel as if he has landed in Kansas. It's a true blue, manly sort of place that celebrates American abundance; it is where big people eat big food (and pay big prices). If you're tired of eating turkey, but still feeling like a gastronomic patriot, the new Pacific Dining Car is the perfect place for you.

The room itself has a comfortingly nondescript air. The dark wood, cozy booths and old-fashioned lamps erase both space and time: Walk in the door and you could be anywhere in America, any time in the last century. In a city where new restaurants strain to look up-to-date, hip and unique, this is a room that asks only to be ignored. The original Pacific Dining Car is a charming collection of rooms with the atmosphere that comes with a patina of age. The new Pacific Dining Car is different: It is comfortable precisely because it doesn't call attention to itself.

Neither does the menu; you could almost recite it with your eyes closed. There are steaks. And more steaks. And more meat--veal, prime rib, pork chops. There is lobster (taken from a tank, sold by the pound and perfectly cooked). For people who don't eat meat and won't eat lobster, there are a couple flavors of fish (generally swordfish and salmon), but I suspect that it is hard to order them without feeling like a wimp.

Even the meat can make you feel like a wimp; you may be feeling macho as you order, but the portions are dauntingly gigantic. Watching that hunk of flesh as it approaches the table can make you want to get up and run. (The most sensible people I've seen at Pacific Dining Car were a couple smart enough to split a single meal; they are just about the only people I've seen walk out the door without a doggie bag.)

Your meat is accompanied by a baked potato, which comes equipped with someone whose sole mission seems to be walking around the restaurant smothering innocent spuds in clouds of sour cream. If you don't feel up to this onslaught of cream and carbohydrates, you could opt for French fries, sliced tomatoes (but why would you?), rice pilaf (the favorite of those fish-eating wimps), cottage cheese (ditto), or very good cole slaw.

There will also be a token vegetable on the plate: One night it was spinach, as dark and thick as a swamp with a strong back note of nutmeg. Another night it was watery zucchini in tomato sauce, which made me realize that the spinach at least had the virtue of keeping to itself; these vegetables insisted on running all over the plate.

The meat is good aged stuff, expertly grilled over mesquite charcoal--but some cuts are considerably better than others. The T-bone costs $5 more than the others--and it's worth it. The next best, for my money, is the Delmonico steak; order it without the bone and it becomes New York strip steak. I've never much liked filet mignon--too soft--and the rib steak I had at Pacific Dining Car was a real disappointment. But that T-bone was a powerful piece of flesh--well-aged meat that gave you something to dig your teeth into (not to mention a great bone for breakfast).

There is a selection of vegetables to go with the meat and potatoes--most of them not green. There are great onion rings--the skinny kind--that come folded into a napkin in a huge basket. They are hot and sweet and amazingly delicious--just the sort of food that makes you glad to be an American. The fried zucchini is surprisingly similar; the zucchini is shredded into thin strands, dipped into the same buttermilk batter and fried. It's hard to make a case that these vegetables are actually good for you, but they are very appealing. There are also mushrooms or steamed spinach or broccoli--all of them served in portions generous enough to feed a few hungry people.

Appetizers are big too. The fresh, briny Kumamoto oysters are served not in the usual half dozen but nine to an order. They come with lemon, cocktail sauce and wonderfully powerful fresh horseradish. Shrimp cocktail is not quite so generous; for $12.50 you get 5 shrimp. They are, however, very large shrimp. Cracked crab is served on ice--and if you simply must have meat before your meat, half a rack of baby back ribs should take the edge off your appetite.

As you might imagine, salads here are the sort that could never be called "rabbit food." Spinach is drenched in bacon and eggs and the Caesar is creamy--laden with croutons and cheese. There is also a giant beefsteak tomato and Maui onion salad whose main purpose seems to be to make you wonder why you are fool enough to be paying $8.75 for this particular pleasure.

Desserts are big, sweet and all-American. There is pecan pie made with maple syrup and big plates of strawberry shortcake. The hot fudge sundae comes in a flat bowl with three scoops of ice cream, whipped cream, pecans--and enough spoons for the entire table.

If you've gotten to this point in the meal, you probably have forgotten that you're still in California. Should you want to come back to reality (before the enormousness of the bill brings you crashing down to earth), try the rather leaden apple pie. If this really were Kansas, the restaurant surely would not be serving a pie this poor.

Pacific Dining Car

* 2700 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (213) 453-4000.

* Open Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 3 p.m.-2 a.m. (Beginning December 1 the restaurant will be open 24 hours a day.) Full bar. Valet parking. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $70-$110.

* Suggested dishes: Recommended dishes: Kumamoto oysters, $12.95; onion rings, $6.95; T-bone steak, $34.95; hot fudge sundae, $6.95.

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