This is Beverly Hills?, I wondered, oh so many years ago when a friend took me to lunch in a sweet little house with a fireplace on South Beverly Drive. Chez Mimi later moved to Santa Monica, and Urth Caffé now dispenses soy lattes and iced green tea from that rose-covered cottage. Back then (and now), South Beverly Drive didn't seem fancy at all, more like a small-town Main Street where you'd find shops selling nightgowns and one-piece swimming suits, baseball cards and birthday gifts. Remember, though, Celestino Drago got his start here with his first restaurant, Celestino. And former Rustic Canyon chef Samir Mohajer chose the neighborhood for his first Cabbage Patch restaurant. Chin Chin still gets the crowds, and California Pizza Kitchen too.
Though a newsstand sells papers from all over the world, South Beverly Drive is definitely not the Beverly Hills of Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, Prada or Fred Leighton, where the stars borrow their diamonds for the Oscars. This is everyday Beverly Hills, where kids come to spend their allowances on ice cream or pizza, housewives meet for coffee at Peet's and teenagers from Beverly Hills High hang out. The blocks between Wilshire and Olympic boulevards are filled with coffee shops and family restaurants with sidewalk tables out front. It's Beverly Hills minus Paris Hilton and the paparazzi and about as unglamorous as you can get this close to the 90210 ZIP Code.
A new restaurant from the Hillstone Restaurant Group behind Houston's, Gulfstream and R+D, though, comes close to bridging the gap. South Beverly Grill is a polished take on straight-ahead American fare. But instead of just another Houston's, this new restaurant concept is slightly more upscale and designed to look more expensive than the prices would warrant. The design firm Assembledge+ has taken on the old Hamburger Hamlet space and transformed it into a darkly handsome restaurant and the adjoining Honor Bar. (The design recently won an award from the American Institute of Architects.)
South Beverly Grill's menu is a concise and well-edited compilation of familiar dishes dressed up for dining out. And because the adjoining Honor Bar features live music that leaks through an open doorway into the restaurant, a night out at South Beverly Grill feels as if you've actually gone somewhere. The restaurant has a sense of place that most chain restaurants don't provide. There's no problem taking your parents or your grandparents here. It will instantly feel familiar. Who doesn't like shrimp Louie, chopped salad or prime rib?
Deviled eggs are creamy and sharp, though laced with too much sweet pickle to make me want to order them again. Fried oysters, big ones, are golden and crunchy. "More fried food?" groans a friend who'd just come back from a road trip to Atlanta. But once she tastes these plump beauties, set on a little spinach and garnished with a dab of mustard sauce, she wants to get another order.
Ahi tuna tartare, cubes of raw sushi-grade tuna tossed in a classic vinaigrette and served with a stack of thin toasts and a fan of avocado, is a real bargain at this price, considering the amount of tuna. This, and most of the appetizers can easily be shared. There's an excellent chopped salad, a heap of cherry tomatoes, slivered carrots, peas and ribbons of Savoy cabbage garnished with a deviled egg.
This is California, so they have the salad thing covered. Shrimp Louie made with Mexican white shrimp is crossed with a cherry tomato salad to arrive at "Shrimp tomato Louie." Less dressing, please, and this could be the best of both worlds. And I don't quite get the salad of arugula with crispy fried chicken livers and gobs of creamy goat cheese in a rather sweet dressing. Is the goat cheese supposed to seduce people into downing a chicken liver? Lose the cheese, and this would be a better dish.
From the looks of the other tables, it's clear the grilled artichoke, imported from Houston's menu as a special, is a bestseller. The artichokes are tender and cooked through with a nice char at the edges, though they're slicked with a touch too much olive oil.
Need salt? Pepper? Anything at all? The almost unbelievably nice waiters are right there.
The hosts are always delighted to see you. Take a stool at the bar and watch the game, join a significant other in a two-seater booth or opt for one of the bigger booths. The lighting is on the table, not in your eyes. It's a relaxing sort of place, where no one has to gallop through a meal, unless speed is specifically requested.
At South Beverly Grill, regulars already have staked a claim to this or that table or booth. The people at the table behind us one night felt so much at home, the guys leapt up and shouted when the flat-screen monitor behind the bar showed their team hitting a home run. One guy was even waving a barbecued rib.
This is that rare restaurant where the main courses are actually better than the starters.
For prime rib enthusiasts, the standing rib roast at $28 is a beautiful rosy piece of beef that comes with a baked potato with all the fixings — sour cream, scallions and nubs of real bacon piled high on the halved potato. And that makes dinner. Lamb sirloin is not the thin slice I've encountered most places but a hefty 2-inch piece of meat. When I order mine medium-rare, the server comes back to say that because it's cooked sous-vide and then finished off on the grill, the chef serves it just under medium. It's firm yet tender, with grainy texture and deep lamb flavor enhanced by a slight char from the mesquite grill. It comes with sautéed spinach leaves and mashed potatoes and the lamb's natural juices.
Burger or French dip sandwich? I'd go with the French dip, finely sliced prime rib piled onto a soft bun, with its own "dip" of natural juices and another bowl of horseradish cream. At $18, it is quite a bit more expensive than Cole's or Philippe's but the quality of the beef is better. The cheeseburger is a neat package, a thick juicy beef patty on a soft yellow bun, all the fixings already in place, the tomato, the lettuce and some sweet pickles in there too.
The exception, sad to say, is the barbecued ribs slathered in a hot sweet mustard sauce. The ribs are very soft, maybe boiled first and then finished on the grill. They certainly don't taste smoked.
As for desserts, share, share, share. They're huge. From Houston's comes the apple crumble with plenty of walnut-studded streusel, thinly sliced apples and, to gild the lily with sticky sweetness, a caramel sauce. The best, though, is the strawberry shortcake, triangles of flaky poppyseed shortcake covered with juicy strawberries and lots of whipped cream.
South Beverly Grill does middle-of-the-road American food pretty well. The ingredients are good, the execution generally right on, but with the tendency to overdress and over-sauce things. Portions are generous but not quite Cheesecake Factory-size. This is a classier operation. Well-run and responsive to guests, South Beverly Grill has eliminated most of the negative elements associated with a chain restaurant. The food may be predictable, but that's the point. Never underestimate the power of the familiar.
SOUTH BEVERLY GRILL
Rating: one-and-a-half stars
Location: 122 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 550-0242; http://www.hillstone.com.
Price: First courses, $3 to $15; main course salads, $15 to $25; main courses, $15 to $36; desserts, $8. Free corkage.
Details: Open noon to 11 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and noon to midnight Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking, $8 evenings; at lunch, 11/2 hours parking free in next-door lot, with validation.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.