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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Fortunately, Little Has Changed at Valley Inn Since the 1940s

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The area around Sepulveda and Ventura was pretty quiet in the 1940s when the Valley Inn opened. Ventura Boulevard was still basically a pokey country road leading to distant Ventura, and the idea that one day there would be upscale, self-consciously hip restaurants on it--and even farther down the road than this--was undreamed of. How things have changed.

But not so much as all that, really. Stepping inside this restaurant is like stepping back in time, though not just to the ‘40s. There’s an 1890s swinging-door saloon, a red-ceilinged dining parlor recalling the antebellum South and a droll smoking area they call the Rumble Room--a clubby nook cluttered with antique auto memorabilia.

The service has anachronistic aspects as well. Many of waitresses are more than thirtysomething, and alternately grumpy and indulgent--likely to call you “honey” while they fasten plastic lobster bibs around your neck and to grumble at you if you ask too many questions about the menu. “Nothin’ fancy, just food,” said one of the more venerable members of this crew one evening, when asked about the pot roast of beef.

Let’s make no bones about it; this is an American restaurant through and through. I brought a few rather style-conscious Euros here--Italians and Finns, to be precise--and boy, were they ever impressed. My Venetian friend went gaga over the rich sauteed mushrooms in red wine sauce, and the Finns were knocked out by (if you can believe this) the hearty bowls of broccoli cheese soup. “Wow,” said one of my women friends. “And I thought American food was baby vegetables and duck sausage pizza.”

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Actually, the Valley Inn--otherwise your typical steak, chop and seafood roadhouse--has made one or two small concessions to time, via a cafe menu for “light” eaters. Somehow though, when I’m snuggled up in one of those semi-circular black vinyl booths, basking in the lurid glow of red-tinged lamps, I just don’t feel like eating Chinese chicken salad or crab cakes with french fries and coleslaw. Give me a Caesar salad and a plate of country pan-fried chicken instead, and make sure you serve my Gibson well chilled.

This food puts a lot of the moderns to shame just by being solidly conceived and well prepared. That Caesar is one of the most muscular in town: rich with anchovies, garlic and Parmesan, all in an eggy suspension that coats the greens like a mink. Most of the other appetizers are classics, too, like the Dungeness crab cocktail doused with pungent red sauce, the frizzled onions with too much grated cheese and the ultra-garlicky escargots (served in plastic shells, natch).

Most of the leisure suits and Lacoste shirts who dine here seem to be beefeaters and their ladies are resolutely into seafood. My lady friend from Finland could not resist the Texas clambake--a huge plate of broiled, slightly overcooked Maine lobster, a baked potato, an entire ear of corn and a half rack of meltingly tender baby back ribs. “Where are the clams?” she asked the waitress. “Honey,” came the reply, “there ain’t no clams in Texas.”

I can personally vouch for the well-marbled, perfectly cut filet mignon, though, and for the traditional-style pot roast, although it could have been just a touch more tender. Two other reasons to order the pot roast are the pair of wonderful potato pancakes served alongside, crisp, greaseless latkes that would put a Jewish grandmother to shame. However, one reason not to order this dish is the starchy brown gravy glooped over the slices of meat.

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The country-fried chicken may be a disappointment if you don’t catch it lucky. The evening I ordered it, the good batter was sodden with oil, as if the flame hadn’t been sufficiently hot. Better and more reliable here is the roast half chicken, a large portion with nicely crisped skin.

Leave room for some of the hearty desserts. Heading the list would be Snickers pie, a crusty peanut pie with a thin, assertive layer of chocolate fudge across the top. Traditionalists might opt for the rich New York-style cheesecake, a favorite with regulars who have been coming here since the Truman era.

But don’t break down and order a dish of the Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream, really a banana ice cream with chunks of dark chocolate. It does taste good, but why be in a hurry to get back to the ‘90s? It’s still pretty quiet around here.

Suggested dishes: sauteed mushrooms, $4.95; Caesar salad, $6.95; roast half chicken, $13.95, filet mignon, $19.95.

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Valley Inn, 4557 Sherman Oaks Ave., Sherman Oaks, (818) 784-1163. Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Parking lot in rear. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, $40-$75.


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