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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Roadhouse: A Big Taste of Harleywood

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The same sanitizing American entrepreneurial spirit that gave us Knott’s Berry Farm and the Hard Rock Cafe now gives us Thunder Roadhouse, the world’s most hygienic biker bar. On a prime piece of real estate on the Sunset Strip, nestled among a cluster of Harley Davidson boutiques, the clapboard Roadhouse looks like the quaint old mercantile store in “Little House on the Prairie.”

Put off? Slightly phobic from some unexamined fusty old stereotypes of greasy, booze-swilling, outlaw bikers? Not to worry here. This is a hangout for upscale bikers: producers, actors, doctors and others who maybe didn’t even know they were interested in motorcycles until they had more money than they knew how to spend. (The bikes here sell for up to $30,000.)

No brawls in this valet-patrolled parking lot full of Volvos and Range Rovers. Near the front door, there’s half a Harley mounted to look as if it’s crashing through the wall: That’s as tough as it gets around here. There’s no grease to be found under your waiter’s fingernails--or for that matter, anywhere on the premises, even in the parts store. This is the Hollywood--or should I say, Harleywood--version of bikerdom.

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Dinner is served in the Roadhouse part of the restaurant where the dark, knotty pine interior is set-dressed to a T--booths upholstered in real, buttery-soft leather, chandeliers made of humpy Harley gas tanks, lamps made from racing trophies. Eau de beer seems to have been sprayed lightly in the corners, if only for ambience. When the hockey game isn’t on the TV, “Easy Rider” plays without sound while Dwight Yoakam sings continuously. (After two meals, you’ve learned his entire ouevre .)

It comes as no surprise that Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Yoakam are all investors, along with owners Michael Eisenberg and Max Hushahn. And this is but the first Thunder Roadhouse; Miami is next, with New York and Chicago soon to come.

In the morning, food is served from the cafe side of the Roadhouse. There’s a counter where the stools are, you guessed it, Harley seats. There’s a sunny deck with an only-in-L.A. view of both the monumentally Art Deco St. James Club and the Harley showroom with its gleaming rows of candy-colored, chrome-heavy customized hogs. The breakfast crowd is mostly hill folk--Hollywood Hills, that is.

The food is up-to-date Americana: meat and potatoes, with concessions made for health--Kickass Chili, for example, comes in three speeds: beef, chicken or vegetarian. At breakfast, the coffee is decent, the servings are generous and the waffles are made in a real waffle iron. The huevos rancheros look like a perfect glossy photo of huevos rancheros ; too bad the actual food is only lukewarm.

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At dinner, the crowd is harder to characterize. There’s a table of college students, a casually dressed family with kids, two women in strapless cocktail dresses. The bar has a few lone drinkers, but the night is young.

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This is a good place to order buffalo chicken wings (they’re just spicy and crisp enough). Also the shrimp cocktail, which is five fat prawns and a good strong dipping sauce in which horseradish plays the leading role. This is also the place to order an iceberg lettuce salad: It’s like the ultimate coffee shop variety--crisp and fresh, with shreds of red cabbage and carrots and a decent blue cheese dressing. The Caesar is passable, but the French onion soup is a mistake.

The fried chicken is lightly breaded, golden, juicy. The mashed potatoes are fine, but the gravy is overly spiced, oddly pungent. Blackened pork chops come with delicious cabbage and apple sauce. A lavishly large T-bone steak with baked potato arrives glistening; it looks and tastes as if the food were varnished with vegetable oil.

The best desserts are probably the ones that are sold out. We were lucky, once, to snag a piece of the cold, fresh banana cream pie. Another time, we settled for the key lime pie, of which we managed one bite apiece before redubbing it “Key Crisco” pie after the fatty coating it left in the mouth.

Curiously, the one detail missing at the Thunder Roadhouse seemed to be the thunder itself: In all my visits, I heard precisely one Harley roar into the parking lot.

* Thunder Roadhouse, 8363 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 650-6011. Open daily 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Full bar. Valet parking. Major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $26-$64.


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