Bob Burns Restaurant in Santa Monica has been around forever, at least as far as Bonnie Burns is concerned. She practically grew up in the restaurant opened by her parents 37 years ago. "We kids got paid a quarter to clean the silver service trays. We bused tables, the waitresses would hire us to fold napkins. We thought we were having a great time."
Burns, who now manages the restaurant, still appears to be having a great time, as does every knowing soul who steps into this lush, venerable oasis from the supercilious glitz that so often passes for class in the City of Angels.
"It's more of a club atmosphere," Burns says. "We get a lot of Europeans and New Yorkers, and a lot of people we know. Tonight my fifth-grade teacher was here."
While last year's earthquake destroyed much of the surrounding neighborhood, Bob Burns remained strangely untouched. "We opened up the next day," says Selwyn Yosslowitz, who has been working with the Burns family as a manager for 15 years. "We rented electric stoves, and we were jam-packed. People were in tears. They were glad to see that at least this hadn't changed."
With such a devoted following, the restaurant has never advertised, and doesn't need to. Word of mouth and the fanatical loyalty of a host of regular customers keep the place packed. In the past couple of years, a new wave of jazz aficionados has helped to keep the joint jumping well into the wee hours.
The atmosphere is dark and clubby. The wood-paneled walls are covered in Scottish memorabilia, the banquettes are dark leather, the carpet is a black-and-red tartan imported from Scotland and the high-backed, throne-like chairs were made to order 37 years ago and cost $450 each even then. Real gas lamps burn over every booth.
In a town full of splashy, temporary luxury, the air of permanence that permeates Bob Burns is welcome. People who eat here regularly tend to request not only the same table, but the same waiter year after year.
This is a steak-and-Caesar salad kind of place. The menu hasn't changed in 10 years, and you won't find anything with strawberry-chipotle salsa even among the specials.
Though the food is basically traditional (calf's liver and onions is one of the most popular dishes), the kitchen will happily work around anyone's special dietary needs. For regular customers, the bar has been known to stock certain wines, and there's a special supply of diet Pepsi kept aside for regular Jane Wyman. In the bar, you'll see a lot of martini glasses and brandy snifters, as well as the odd teacup. People of varying ages sit around the piano listening to Larry Gales on bass and Howlett (Smitty) Smith on piano.
"They appeared on 'General Hospital' this week," Burns says. "The cast hangs out here, and they had a character who bought a bar, so they got Smitty and Larry to go on and play in the bar scene.
When the pair plays a popular song, sometimes people in the audience spontaneously begin to sing along. Smith has been playing at Bob Burns since 1963. Gales, who has played with Thelonius Monk, is a newcomer, having arrived on the scene a mere four years ago. The pair's syncopated vocalizations are unique, whether they're singing old jazz standards, contemporary songs or their own compositions, which they've just recorded on an album.
"People like to park in our lot, go to a movie, come back to listen to the music and have a glass of Chardonnay and a baked potato," Burns says.
Where: Bob Burns Restaurant, 202 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. Valet and self-parking. (310) 393-6777. Other locations in Newport Beach and Woodland Hills.
When: Kitchen open from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, nightly. Music nightly until 2 a.m.
Cost: Dinner entrees, $14-$26. Salads, $10-$17. Drinks, $3.50 and up.