As recently as the '60s, I like to think, a person could walk into nearly any white-tablecloth joint in Hollywood, sip an extra-dry martini and have a tuxedoed captain toss up a perfect Caesar salad as you watched. Caesar was the ultimate table-side dish, the summit of secret-ingredient insider's cuisine. Everybody used to have an opinion on how a proper Caesar should be made, an opinion usually passed down like a baldness gene or your dad's political affiliation.
By now, the debates have become tedious: whether the original was invented in wartime Austria or concocted at a Tijuana restaurant on a long Fourth of July weekend; whether or not the salad should include anchovies; whether the romaine lettuce should be cut, torn or left whole; whether croutons should be oven-toasted or sauteed; whether the briefly coddled egg should be mixed in with the dressing or broken directly onto the greens--or these days, in overcautious restaurants, whether to use the egg at all.
Perhaps the neo-creative act of substituting for the egg spurred the recent Caesar craze. I have eaten Caesar salad rolled into crepes, Caesars with corn nuts instead of croutons, a Caesar garnished with sun-dried tomato cookies and another with wild-boar bacon, Caesars made with radicchio, with ahi tuna, and with seven-grain croutons, and, of course, the inevitable combination of Caesar salad and grilled chicken. After the McDonald's cheeseburger, the Caesar salad may be the most famous locally conceived dish in the world. Even Denny's does a Caesar now.
"Caesar salad" has come to mean more or less this: lettuce dressed with a garlic vinaigrette. Though the dish has become nearly endemic, it is scarcely ever seen in anything approaching its pungent, slippery, classic form.
The greatness of a Caesar salad may break down to equal parts showmanship and quality of ingredients, and the showiest of Caesars is served at the counter of Musso & Frank Grill, at that far corner where waiter Manny Felix does magic tricks, sings and holds court. He brings out a big round tray laden with croutons, cheese, a couple of lemon wedges, fresh cut-up-romaine, and a bunch of other stuff pooled at the bottom of a battered steel bowl. Beating, he dashes in a shot of Worcestershire, follows with a slug of pepper, squeezes in first one lemon wedge and then another. With a vaudeville flourish, he cracks open a coddled egg that floats in a dish of water and slides it into the bowl, stirring madly, tossing in a bit of grated cheese. He turns the salad out onto a plate and serves it in a single motion, almost a pirouette between his station and your counter seat a scant yard away.
At Felix's station, the salad smells like a Caesar, the heady salt of anchovy colliding with the sweet funk of Worcestershire sauce and a tart note of citrus. There is just enough Parmesan cheese to flavor the salad without making it pasty, a slight egg-slipperiness that coats every leaf. The flavor of anchovy is a little heavier than at most places, but the croutons are tiny, crunchy; there is the slightest bite of fresh pepper. Nothing goes better with a cold Gibson served straight up.
At the Chronicle in Pasadena, the captain rubs fresh garlic into a juicy puree against the tines of a fork, mashes anchovies into the bottom of a big wooden bowl, carefully separates an egg and dribbles in only the yolk, mixes and mashes and tosses in the air. Instead of oil and vinegar, he pours a gray vinaigrette, and while the salad is expertly made, the incongruous jolt of sweetness in the dressing is just too much--almost like the dressing on the spinning green salad at Lawry's the Prime Rib.
The captains at Chasen's probably do more table-side preparation than the rest of the city's waiters combined: They toss and swirl with balletic grace, and their service carts line up three deep, like the Mercedeses at the valet station. Caesar salads are something of a specialty here, and the captains, too, pour ingredients out of little bowls, squeeze gauze-wrapped lemons, coarsely chop what looks like an entire school of anchovies. But they stir up far too much dressing, so the texture of the egg asserts itself hardly at all, the dressing barely thickens, and the lemony salad--while delicious--tends to be soggy enough to pretty much render the croutons into pieces of wet bread. I like this salad, but I suspect that, 40 years ago, it might have made someone like Charles Laughton stomp off in a huff.
That last stronghold of masculine cooking in Beverly Hills, the Grill, makes a user-friendly Caesar--garlicky, but not too much so, flecked with anchovy, but not too much, croutons crunchy, nicely flavored but not greasy. The lettuce itself, mostly tender inner leaves, is cut into pieces that might be too small for the connoisseur, but they guarantee that few will stain their ties with errant drops of oil. You can eat this salad for lunch without reeking through your 2 o'clock meeting, but the salad is somewhat lacking in elemental pungency. Where one could scarcely imagine an authentic Caesar complementing the smoky flavors of a grilled chicken breast, this one does, quite.
The Pacific Dining Car's salad is somewhat more hard-core, garlicky with plenty of cheese, crisp squares of bread gently fried and extremely fresh romaine--even at 1 in the morning. Though the dressing less coats each leaf than weighs heavily upon it, the Caesar here captures the flavor essence of the dish better than most, the play of lemon against Worcestershire sauce, the slightly sweet crunch of romaine, the essential richness of the dish.
At the West Beach Cafe, the Caesar includes croutons astoundingly garlicky, though dryish, and a ton of cheese; it tends to be refreshing rather than rich. West Beach's sister restaurant Rebecca's serves essentially the same salad, but with flying- saucer-shaped things in place of the croutons. At Pasadena's Xiomara--Pasadena is a Caesar-salad town--the fresh, pale inner leaves of romaine are left whole so you can eat the leaves with your fingers.
San Gabriel's Yucatecan restaurant El Emperador Maya serves an excellent Caesar salad: dressing a little denser than most, mild anchovy and garlic flavor with a distinct undertaste of mustard, thorough leaf coat, a good solid Caesar, though the cut romaine has been less than absolutely fresh.
Pasadena's Parkway Grill, on the other hand, serves a salad almost paradigmatic of the overwrought Caesar, topped with coarsely grated cheese, gritty with more finely grated cheese, garnished with a giant wafer of overthick fried cheese shaped into an object the size and shape of a Cabbage Patch Kids bonnet. After two bites, it is hard to care whether the salad has anchovies or not.
Chasen's, 9039 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 271-2168. Caesar salad, $9.50.
Chronicle, 897 Granite Dr., Pasadena; (818) 792-1179. Caesar salad, lunch, $7.50 per person; dinner (for two), $10.50.
El Emperador Maya, 1823 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel; (818) 288-7265. Caesar salad for two, $6.50.
The Grill, 9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills; (310) 276-0615. Caesar salad, lunch, $11.50; dinner, $14.50.
Musso & Frank Grill, 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 467-7788. Caesar salad, $10.75.
Pacific Dining Car, 1310 W. 6th St., Los Angeles; (213) 483-6000. Caesar salad, $9.95.
Parkway Grill, 510 S. Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena; (818) 795-1001. Caesar salad, $8.
Rebecca's, 2025 Pacific Ave., Venice; (310) 306-6266. Caesar salad, $6.
West Beach Cafe, 60 N. Venice Blvd., Venice; (310) 823-5396. Caesar salad, brunch and dinner, $6.
Xiomara, 69 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; (818) 796- 2520. Caesar salad appetizer, lunch, $5; dinner $6.50.