It’s very, very red in here: red carpets and red-flocked wallpaper, red lampshades and reddish menus, red-glowing niches behind silvertone statues of beefeaters, red-leather booths that curve around you a bit like the teacups on the Mad Hatter’s ride at Disneyland. The acoustic-tile ceiling is painted the deep, rich red of a Lincoln Town Car, Bill Blass edition. When you trip down the few stairs to the Windsor, off a quiet street of residential hotels east of the old Ambassador, past the Holiday magazine award plaques and into the basement dining room, it’s a little like a journey back to the womb. Or at least to 1951.
Wilshire Center was once one of the tonier restaurant neighborhoods in Los Angeles, at least for aficionados of the red-leather booth. Now they’re all gone: the Coconut Grove, Bull & Bush, Chapman Park, the Cove, Perino’s, Vince & Paul’s, Edward’s, the Brown Derby--every remnant of old L.A. except for the Windsor and Taylor’s Prime Steaks.
The Windsor is one of the few restaurants that still has lawn jockeys outside by the door, in the style of New York’s “21" Club. The maitre d’ wears white gloves and a tuxedo; his minions push around gleaming chafing-dish carts. It serves cheese-bread instead of focaccia , vichyssoise instead of carrot-ginger soup, sea-breeze salad instead of warmed goat cheese and arugula. It’s among the most expensive restaurants in Los Angeles--$28 for a (bloodless) steak, $12 for a (dull) shrimp cocktail. It’s not listed in the current Zagat guide.
A massive, rounded bar, shaped like the prow of a ship, thrusts into the redness from a corner, all curvilinear dark woods, red bar stools, and--overhead--patterned glass tiles through which filter complexly red light. This is the bar nuevo -retro places like Hollywood Canteen and the Olive wish they had, patinated by decades of cigarette smoke, complete with (on weekends) a piano player who knows all the changes to “Night and Day"--a perfect backdrop for serious posing. The bartender mixes his $4 martinis mostly for the Brooks Brothers set and out-of-town businessmen who’ve dropped in from the Mid-Wilshire hotels, but most of the dinner customers look as if they’ve been coming here since early in the Eisenhower Administration. The Windsor is so hip, music-video directors have never even heard of the place, though it’s starting to catch on.
At one table, the captain pours bottled steak sauce into a silver tureen over one chafing-dish flame. Over another, he melts a lump of butter in a copper saute pan, stirring in mysterious spoonfuls from a phalanx of jars and bottles, jerking the pan back and forth to distribute the ingredients. When the butter is not nearly hot enough, he slips in a large, flat steak, cooks it just long enough to toughen the meat, pours in the steak sauce, then finishes the job with a glug of brandy that explodes toward the ceiling in an enormous fireball. Steak Diane might be gray, sweet and overpowered by a mustardy brown sludge, but the show is pretty exciting.
There are lots of shows here at the Windsor--the Caesar Salad Show, gritty and tasteless; the Sea Breeze Salad Show, a bland though refreshing and, well, breezy thing that involves sour cream and spices; the Steak Tartare Show, which is all right if you tell the captain to go easy on the salt. All involve a zillion little bowls of seasonings and complicated shmooshing techniques.
The Wilted Spinach Salad Show is quite good, possibly the best salad in the city in a category few still care to compete in, sharp with vinegar and rich with bacon pungency. Still, it’s disconcerting to see the captain tear open paper packets of sugar, the kind you get with your coffee in doughnut shops, and pour it onto the greens.
Even dishes prepared in the kitchen are elaborately garnished, arranged and replated at the table. The Windsor may not be the place to come if you like your sole meuniere hot or your duck a l’orange lightly sauced.
A cellular phone rings in the next booth, and a man we’ll call Doc reaches over to answer it.
“Whaddya calling me for if she’s dead?” Doc says, loudly, over the theme music to “Born Free.” “I’m not God, y’know . . . what am I supposed to do about it?”
The Windsor used to be renowned in certain circles for its wine list, and the thick document is loaded with such things as ’59 Beychevilles and ’64 La Tours, as expensive as a new clutch on a ’72 Citroen. The list also appears to feature a treasure trove of older Italian and California wines at reasonable prices, but both a ’75 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and an ancient Gattinara haven’t so much aged as lost the will to live. There may be no wine bargains in Windsorland. Have another Manhattan.
Windsorland is the place to find museum dishes, the ones real gourmands were able to puzzle out 40 years ago--turkey Diablo; sweetbreads mascotte; breast of pheasant Queen of Sheba; crab a la Turque. Lobster thermidor, overcooked and drowned in a sweet, heavily liquored cream sauce, is pretty tasty against all odds, sort of a dessert lobster. Oysters Rockefeller are hot and briny under their mantle of spinach. Trout “almondine,” also overdone, is sauteed crisp but actually tastes a little like trout and almonds. (The garnish, a fried-potato basket filled with crisp potato strings, seems like something lifted from a 1953 issue of Gourmet.)
There are also museum desserts, if you remember to order them in advance: crepes Suzettes, cherries jubilee, giant logs of baked Alaska, all bathed in sticky pools of blazing liquor . . . the sort of flaming goo the Honeymooners might have eaten on anniversaries.
The Windsor just acquired a new owner, reportedly the first change in ownership since the restaurant opened 1950. There’s a new slogan, too: “The Tradition Continues.” But of course.
3198 W. Seventh St., Los Angeles, (213) 382-1261.
Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $55-$99.
Recommended dishes: wilted spinach salad, $10; steak “a la tartar,” $25; crepes Suzettes (for two), $14.
RESTAURANTS: Articles that had been appearing in Sunday Calendar will move to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, beginning next Sunday.