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San Diego Spotlight : At 50, the Marine Room Is Still a Top Dining Spot

The Marine Room turned 50 on Wednesday, a milestone that the La Jolla seaside restaurant is celebrating with four nights of special dinners and entertainment that will continue through Saturday.

The management is hoping that the grunion runs predicted for tonight and Saturday will occur, because at the restaurant’s opening in 1941, a massive run of these tiny, silvery fish provoked the formally dressed first-nighters to kick off their shoes and dash out on the sands in an impromptu hunt in which scales and sequins flashed in the moonlight. True to the accommodating style of the times, the Marine Room chefs cooked the catch on the spot, and, while this detail seems to have escaped the establishment’s historians, they probably served it with tartar sauce.

The Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and the enormous military expansion that followed the country’s entrance into World War II had the local effect of giving a second meaning to the Marine Room’s name. Men in uniform crowded the place, and the results of some of the romances contracted with the young La Jolla women who flocked here to meet them now are measurable in three generations. The restaurant retains some of the clubby atmosphere established at that time.

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Through the years, the constant and unchanging attraction of the Marine Room has been the waves that, at lowest tide, slouch in lazily from La Jolla Cove and give up several yards short of the restaurant’s massive plate glass windows. At high tide, though, the whitecaps break relentlessly against the panes and, given the intensity of the moment’s weather, the show ranges from the engaging to the spectacular.

Spotlights trained on the night surf make the lighted area seem a sort of rollicking stage show framed by the surrounding darkness. The interior lights burn dimly to emphasize the outdoor action, and there is a cozy magic to dining dryly in a handsome, comfortably furnished room that seems to be sinking beneath the waves.

There surely have been times in the Marine Room’s five decades when guests have looked longingly from their plates to the grunion staging a piscine version of D-Day on Omaha Beach outside. At present, however, the kitchen seems to be operating at top form, which is to say that a dinner last Friday, when the place was nearly swamped with business, was good if not quite memorable.

The menu has been updated in certain ways--the broiled sea bass is served with pesto, for example, and the salmon with a composed butter flavored with sun-dried tomatoes, basil and green peppercorns--but it remains devoted to shellfish appetizers and includes several steaks, as well as that penultimate example of seaside cookery, a filet mignon joined by an Australian lobster tail. Here, this is known as the “Imperial Pair,” and it weighs in at the regal price of $29.95, choice of soup or salad included.

The appetizer list goes so far as to offer snails flamed in brandy prefatory to their typical submersion in herbed garlic butter, but also lists New Zealand cockles steamed in a highly seasoned, wine-enriched broth; clams Casino; oysters Rockefeller; oysters on the half-shell, and shrimp cocktail, of course, and a new-style smoked salmon salad with cilantro-lime dressing.

The seafood sampler, undeniably lavish, is a fine indulgence for anyone truly enamored of shellfish; the iced platter recently offered excellent raw oysters and clams on the shell; giant, tender shrimp; crab claws, and a cup of lobster salad that made up in generosity what it lacked in delicacy. The menu writer wandered rather far afield by including a “mignonette” sauce on the side, properly a peppery vinegar dip that the Marine Room kitchen unaccountably sweetens with sugar or simple syrup. This is easy to ignore, however, since the oysters and clams are too good to sauce.

The salad, crisp and attractively garnished, more than met the basic requirements, although the “creamy Caesar dressing” seemed about as wishy-washy as the waves at low tide.

In addition to a fish list that includes orange roughy and halibut, both sauteed and sauced, the entree list offers such seafood choices as the inevitable shrimp “scampi,” linguine topped with the day’s selection of fish and shellfish, and the “lobster medley,” a casserole of bits of lobster, sea bass, crab, scallops and shrimp baked in Sherry and butter.

The deep-sea scallops in what the menu called lobster sauce were generously served, tender and quite happy in their dilled cream sauce. This situation mooted the point that the term lobster sauce means something quite specific (it is intensely briny and flavored with lobster meat, shell and roe) and was not even remotely approached by the sauce in this dish.

Meat offerings include a reasonably calm filet mignon with artichoke bottoms and sauce bearnaise, a plain old New York sirloin and a rather daring filet stuffed with crab and finished with a red wine-forest mushroom sauce. The list continues with chicken in Champagne sauce, a tarragon-flavored breast on pasta, veal piccata and, again in a transcendentally nouvelle mood, a sauteed lamb loin with herbes de Provence and a roasted garlic mint sauce. This last was rather nice, and certainly had a lively, perky flavor; the current Marine Room kitchen shows no temerity when it comes to seasoning.

The only dessert from the crowded tray that the restaurant actually prepares is a Grand Marnier-flavored chocolate mousse, swirled with whipped cream for lightness and, everything considered, almost as refreshing as the sight of the aquatic show going on outside.

THE MARINE ROOM 2000 Spindrift Drive, La Jolla 459-7222 Lunch and dinner daily Dinner entrees $14.95 to $29.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $50 to $80 Credit cards accepted


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