In Celebration of Restaurants Past : Restauran History : The Way We Ate

My editor, who is 30-something, asked me to do a memory-lane piece on restaurants that were popular a long time ago . . . 20, 30 years.

"Hey, wait a minute, kid," I told her. "I may be 60-something, but I'm really 17 at heart. I go to the Tail of the Pup, I watch MTV and listen to the Grateful Dead all the time. I'd really have to stretch my memory to remember places I haven't been to for the last 30 years."

"Try," she said and went off, her short, short skirt flinging as she turned.

But whom was I kidding? A brief reminiscence turned up more closed restaurants than I care to recall. Perino's, Scandia, the Windsor, the Brown Derby whooshed up first. The scrambled regression of places slipped further and further back, like a time machine gone amok.

*

Then everything stopped. Oh, my God! It's 1960 at Romanoff's. And there is Mike Romanoff serving strawberries Romanoff the way they should be, sprinkled with brown sugar.

And there's Au Petit Jean and La Rue. I almost forgot them. They were little French gems, precursors of Le Restaurant and Le St. Germain, that helped mold the cultural character of the city at a time when food--French or otherwise--was no big deal.

Who knew from French in those days? Escargots defined French cuisine in Los Angeles in the '50s. And Robaire's, longer-lived than any other French restaurant, served a cassoulet that we then thought was a half a minute from Paris. Maison Gerard, another '50s and '60s hangout of the stars, introduced us to our first onion soup--which might have been authentic, but who could be sure?

It was the Coppertone look of Scandia I remember most. Day or night, a California squint was necessary to see past the deep, dark, coppery glow from all that expensive copper hammered on the bar where they kept the all-you-can-eat-but-didn't-dare Swedish meatballs. The glow came from everywhere--the burnished wood-paneled walls covered with copper utensils and even the rich burgundy leather chairs with oversized backs and wings as large as elephant ears, where romance, serious business and monkey business were safe from stray eyes and ears.

*

I also remember the hostess sending my husband off to the cloak room, like a naughty boy used to be sent to the principal's office, to be fitted with an oversized blue blazer and a crumpled tie when his '70s Nehru jacket was deemed unsuitable for Scandia's respectable rooms. Fashion slights were accepted meekly in those days. Who would stand for that stuff today?

The imperious hostess (Judith Anderson in the movie "Rebecca" flashes to mind) would lead us in a funereal procession to our plush, overstuffed banquettes and slap huge blue menus with dangling gold tassels on the table as if she were issuing court summonses. No hello. No goodby. "Dinner for two this way, please." Never did host or hostess utter my name in 20 years of regular dining at Scandia.

Still, I loved it. There were the three-ring circus acts by waiters performing a service known as "table-side" cooking, an art lost and buried along with the great Continental restaurants of America's past. Flames from chafing dishes shot up, sending wafts of smoking shish kebab perfumed with Cognac into the air. Caesar salads made with real eggs were tossed with the flair of a ballerina's Swan Lake arms. Slicing steak Diane was a sleight-of-hand magic act. First you see the steak in the pan, then find it ribboned on your plate. No beat.

No restaurant since Scandia has served gravad lax with droplings of curled, crisply fried salmon skin and a sweet dill sauce. The chicken Kon-Tiki, a curried chicken salad, not only was a lunch favorite (eaten with salt sticks) but ended up in the hall of fame of most-requested recipes of The Times' Culinary SOS readers.

*

Though I was no fan of fish, the pickled herring was so fresh I could almost smell the North Sea. We often stopped at Scandia after the theater or movie for late supper, which started at 10 p.m. sharp and not a moment sooner. Danish open-faced sandwiches were miniature works of art, decorated with spirals of lemon peel, sprigs of dill, swirls of sour cream and a sprinkling of caviar.

The steak saute with potatoes, prepared table-side, inspired me to duplicate the dish at home, and it's something I serve to this day. Lingonberry pudding, served in huge stemware bowls with lingonberry sauce sinking deep into clouds of whipped cream, is now a fragment of a recurring dream.

Perino's, tucked away on the fringes of Hancock Park, was Los Angeles' first and foremost icon of culinary excellence in the '50s and '60s. Where else would you get pumpernickel cheese toast served by a waiter wearing white gloves? Or where today do you have to beg for the check, as we often had to at Perino's, before the captain deigned to present it?

The Windsor was a far more relaxed Continental copycat. Suave but not overbearing; stuffy but friendly. And those crepes Suzette, performed at table-side, were divine.

*

I never knew the owners of those famed Continental restaurants, but their presence was always felt. My memory of Scandia's Kenneth Hansen is of a handsome, square-faced Dane with piercing blue eyes--and a temper that supposedly terrorized the kitchen staff as he scrutinized each and every dish for a stray droplet of sauce, an ill-placed chive blade or whatever it was that would make him send the plate back.

It was his strong presence, I would guess, that saved Scandia from extinction long after it was outclassed by the new wave of Continental restaurants--Le St. Germain, Le Restaurant, L'Ermitage, L'Orangerie, Bernard's, Ma Maison and others.

It was these restaurants that brought to Los Angeles French cooking that we thought was better than you would get in France. By the late '70s, Los Angeles was finally serious about its food. Thankfully, L'Orangerie is still around, for anyone old enough to remember the difference.

But even these wonderful new French restaurants eventually became arbitrary victims of fashion in a fickle age when everything, including restaurants, became subject to cancellation without notice.

*

A jumble of dishes of those golden days of Los Angeles' culinary revolution in the '70s and '80s flashes before my eyes: Ma Maison's ravioli stuffed with duck (when Wolfgang Puck was doing the cooking); Bernard's chilled avocado soup in an avocado shell; Roland Gibert's wonderful whole cabbage stuffed with a farcie of mushrooms and wrapped in caul fat, also at Bernard's. (I remember Bernard Jacoupy, who now operates Lunaria in West Los Angeles, saying to Gibert, who is from Central France's cabbage-producing center: "Cabbage, cabbage, cabbage. We are turning into cabbages.")

And there was Michel Blanchet at L'Ermitage masterfully creating a minimalist picture-perfect Jardin des Tuileries dead-center on the plate with Dover sole and a few cut vegetables.

Long before these new-wave restaurants arrived in Los Angeles, there was a group of American restaurants that identified the city's carefree spirit more than any other kind of place, living or dead. They were a class of restaurant that I would love to see again, but, of course, never will.

I had just arrived from New York City and was invited to the Brown Derby near the Ambassador Hotel. There, occupying a good portion of a city block, was a brown derby hat about three stories high and 90 feet wide. I laughed hysterically. I was home at last--Alice's Wonderland.

*

I ran home and got the kids. They ordered the Shirley Temples and the Cobb salad--now household names in American cuisine, they were both invented by owner Bob Cobb.

The Bantam Cock and Tail O' the Cock, a couple of zany architectural twins, sporting sweeping overhangs and tall signs of roosters clucking over busy Los Angeles boulevards, were great places to unload the week's psychological aches and pains with a good gin and tonic, shrimp cocktail and a terrific steak.

As for steaks, Ollie Hammond's on La Cienega was matchless for its comforting choo-choo-train coziness, friendly waiters and steak done to your pleasure, with a wood marker indicating "rare," "medium" or "well done."

Steak sandwiches, like the chewy ones once served at the recently deceased Nickodell's on Melrose, had the Los Angeles stamp of approval for how a steak should be served--on a piece of toasted French bread soaked with steak juice, over or under a fried onion. You can order the same type of sandwich today at Musso and Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard, the place that probably invented the sandwich and still is going strong as Los Angeles' oldest family restaurant.

*

At Nickodell's the steak was not prime, but who cared, as long as it could be eaten in the dim light of the smoky lounge where Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman fought and made up? Or was it Carol and Bob, or Desi and Lucy? Whatever.

Then there were the South Seas restaurants that vanished without a trace. What happened to Don the Beachcomber? Or the Luau, known for its terrific tropical drinks and boula boula , the soup that is part pea soup and part turtle soup? Which reminds me: Whatever happened to Frascati? The scampi there was terrific.

Ah, well. Nothing is forever.

*

The Luau, which looked like a ship-wrecked sailing ship in the center of Beverly Hills, served Boula Boula in small bowls.

LUAU'S BOULA BOULA

3 (10-ounce) cans pea soup or 2 cans pea soup and 1 (10-ounce) can green turtle soup

Freshly ground pepper

6 tablespoons Sherry

6 tablespoons unsweetened whipped cream, lightly salted

Grated Parmesan cheese

Paprika

Minced chervil, optional

Combine pea soup and turtle soup, if using, in saucepan and bring to boil. Season to taste with pepper. Pour 1 tablespoon Sherry in each of 6 heat-proof bouillon cups. Pour soup over Sherry. Top each bowl with 1 tablespoon whipped cream. Sprinkle with grated cheese and paprika. Place under broiler and broil until browned slightly. Sprinkle with chervil. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

283 calories; 1,254 mg sodium; 21 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 0.80 gram fiber.

*

Scandia, in its heyday, was a mecca of smoked salmon served with dill sauce and curls of fried salmon skin.

GRAVAD LAX SCANDIA

1 (2-pound) salmon fillet, skin on

3 tablespoons salt

3 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon crushed peppercorns

1/2 bunch dill

Mustard Dill Sauce

Salmon Skin Curls, optional

Thaw salmon, if frozen. Cut salmon in half. Remove bones.

In bowl combine salt, sugar and peppercorns. Rub 1/2 of spice mixture over 1 salmon half. Place fish, skin side down, in baking dish. Spread dill over. Rub other half of salmon with remaining spice mixture and place, skin side up, on first salmon half. Cover with foil. Place plate on top of fish and weight on top of plate. Refrigerate 48 hours. Turn fish over every 12 hours, separating fillets slightly to baste with pan liquid.

When ready to serve, scrape away dill and seasonings. Place fillets, skin-side down, on cutting board. Cut salmon at slant in thin slices away from skin. Serve cold with Mustard Dill Sauce and few Salmon Skin Curls. Makes 24 appetizer servings.

Each serving contains about:

96 calories; 962 mg sodium; 21 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0 fiber.

Mustard Dill Sauce

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons vinegar

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/3 cup oil

3 tablespoons chopped dill

In bowl combine mustard, sugar, vinegar and dry mustard. Slowly beat in oil until thick. Stir in dill. Chill. Makes 3/4 cup.

Salmon Skin Curls

Cut skin of salmon. Then drop into skillet with very hot deep oil to cook until crisp.

*

Another Scandia specialty was this salad with South Sea flavors, "Continentalized" in cantaloupe shells.

SCANDIA'S KON-TIKI SALAD

2 cups diced cooked chicken breast

3/4 cup diced celery

1/2 cup freshly grated coconut

1 tablespoon chutney

Curry Dressing

2 cantaloupes

In bowl combine chicken, celery, coconut and chutney. Mix well. Toss with Curry Dressing. Cut cantaloupes in halves, remove seeds and fill cavities with chicken mixture. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

393 calories; 430 mg sodium; 57 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 36 grams carbohydrates; 17 grams protein; 1.57 grams fiber.

Curry Dressing

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 teaspoon lime juice

Dash sugar

Salt, pepper

In bowl blend together mayonnaise, sour cream, curry powder, lime juice and sugar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

*

This dessert is said to have been served at Romanoff's when it was a celebrity hangout during Hollywood's Golden Era.

STRAWBERRIES ROMANOFF

1/4 cup strawberry liqueur

1/4 cup orange liqueur

2 tablespoons Cognac

Brown sugar, optional

Juice 1 lemon

2 baskets strawberries

3 pints French vanilla ice cream

1 cup whipping cream, whipped

In bowl combine strawberry liqueur, orange liqueur, Cognac, up to 2 tablespoons brown sugar, depending on sweetness of berries, and lemon juice.

Rinse strawberries, reserving 8 for garnish. Hull and halve remaining strawberries. Marinate halved strawberries in liqueur mixture about 15 minutes.

In large bowl soften 2 pints vanilla ice cream, then fold in whipped cream. Fold in marinated strawberry mixture.

Place small scoop of remaining ice cream in 8 large stemmed glasses. Fill glasses with mixture, then garnish each with reserved whole strawberry. Sprinkle with additional brown sugar to taste, if desired. Serve at once. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

378 calories; 99 mg sodium; 86 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.42 gram fiber.

*

Bernard Jacoupy created this avocado soup served in frozen avocado shells when he was food and beverage director at Bernard's at the Biltmore Hotel.

BERNARD'S CHILLED AVOCADO SOUP

2 large avocados

2 cups chicken broth

Salt, pepper

2 cups whipping cream

2 tablespoons Cognac

2 tablespoons Sherry

Avocado Shells

Whipped cream, lightly salted, optional

Peel avocados and dice pulp. Puree pulp in blender container with chicken broth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Gradually stir in whipping cream. Chill.

Add Cognac and Sherry just before spooning into Avocado Shells for serving. Garnish with salted whipped cream. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

635 calories; 517 mg sodium; 165 mg cholesterol; 60 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.82 grams fiber.

Avocado Shells

4 avocados

Lemon juice

Cut slice from stem end of each avocado. Scoop out pulp and discard seeds. Reserve cap. Use pulp for soup or puree with small amount of lemon juice and freeze for future use. Place shells upright in cup or egg carton. Freeze until firm.

To serve, embed each avocado shell in crushed ice in dessert dish or soup icer. Carefully spoon in soup and lean cap against side of avocado. Makes 4 shells.

*

Bob Cobb, owner of the original Brown Derby, invented this now-famous chopped salad colorfully decorated with spokes of diced tomatoes, chicken breast, avocado, hard-cooked eggs, bacon and Roquefort cheese.

COBB SALAD

1/2 head iceberg lettuce

1/2 bunch watercress

1 small bunch curly endive

1/2 head romaine

2 tablespoons minced chives

2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced

1 whole chicken breast, cooked, boned, skinned and diced

6 strips bacon, cooked and diced

1 avocado, diced

3 hard-cooked eggs, diced

1/2 cup Roquefort cheese, crumbled

Special French Dressing

Chop lettuce, watercress, endive and romaine into very fine pieces using knife. Mix together in large wide bowl or individual wide shallow bowls. Add chives. Arrange tomatoes, chicken, bacon, avocado and eggs in narrow strips or wedges across top of greens. Sprinkle with cheese. Chill.

At serving time toss with 1/2 cup Special French Dressing. Pass remaining dressing. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving, without extra dressing, contains about:

336 calories; 386 mg sodium; 141 mg cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 2.11 grams fiber.

Special French Dressing

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

3/4 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 clove garlic, minced

1/4 cup olive oil

3/4 cup vegetable oil

In bowl combine water, vinegar, sugar, lemon juice, salt, pepper, Worcestershire, mustard, garlic and oils. Chill. Shake well before using. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

* Food styling by Donna Deane and Mayi Brady

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°