The Review: Westside Tavern at Westside Pavilion is an unexpected delight

Restaurant Critic
I can tell you my friends weren’t all that excited when I told them where we were headed for dinner: the Westside Pavilion. Granted, dining in a shopping mall doesn’t quite have the allure of Providence or the Bazaar by José Andres. But then again, I told them, you never know where the next great restaurant will pop up in Southern California. It could be in the most banal of strip malls, tucked away in Glendale or hiding out in the O.C. That’s one of the peculiarities -- and delights -- of this endlessly fascinating area.

Restaurant review: A June 3 review of the Westside Tavern refers to the AMC movie complex as being near the restaurant. In fact, the Landmark Theatres are nearby. —

What is this, a sports bar? I wonder, as we walk into the huge, darkish space at the foot of the escalators to the movie theaters. Behind the 50-foot walnut bar, a bartender mixes up a Cantaloupe Sour, then moves on to assemble a Sazerac embellished with lemon oil. Oh, the possibilities, I’m thinking, as in cocktails before a movie. How civilized. And they’re just $9, as opposed to $15 elsewhere.

In answer to my question, one of my male friends volunteers that this is no sports bar. There aren’t enough flat screens. In fact, there’s just one mounted at the far left of the bar, which is a relief if you’re more intent on dipping into the latest Michael Connelly thriller over your drink than keeping up with the Dodgers game.

But this tavern is much more than a bar. Warren Schwartz, former executive chef at Saddle Peak Lodge and Whist -- and a partner here -- has created an affordable and seasonal menu that he’s dubbed California tavern fare. Nothing is startlingly original, but what is unusual is how well-conceived and well-executed each dish is. Being a good cook isn’t enough in the executive chef position. You have to be able to lead and to teach. Obviously, Schwartz can’t cook every dish himself, yet the food at Westside Tavern is consistently good.

The other night I took a bite of the spinach that came with my spit-roasted chicken and set down my fork I was so surprised. It was about as perfect as I’ve ever encountered, lightly sautéed, each emerald leaf slicked with butter and perfumed with garlic. The chicken itself was moist, the skin full of flavor, and it came with a punchy whole-grain mustard sauce on the side. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

More to share

First of all, know this: The portions are huge at Westside Tavern. Unless you’re a real trencherman, count on sharing appetizers and even mains, all of which make this Westside restaurant even more affordable.

If you’re starting with one of the delicious cocktails created by mixologist Ryan Magarian (the Grapefruit Rickey is a terrific choice), order the fresh-cut potato chips, a bowl of fragile warm chips, pale gold and shatteringly crisp, and salted just right.

With a glass or carafe of wine from the moderately priced list, maybe the Jean-Luc Colombo Côtes du Rhone or the Ridge Zinfandel, order the market flatbread, especially if that day’s is topped with artichokes, smoked mozzarella and roasted tomatoes with a flurry of zigzag-y arugula leaves on top. This is no mingy square of dough, but enough to cover an entire board, cut in elongated triangles and very crisp on the bottom to make it easier to pick up and eat. It’s as good, or better, than most restaurant pizzas around.

They also do a fine California cheese and cured meats platter, which changes depending on what’s on hand. Ours had several of kinds of salame, prosciutto and a couple of excellent California cheeses, one goat and one sheep’s milk. Something lighter? Go with the crispy green beans, a heap of tempura-fried Blue Lake beans with a lemony aioli for dipping. Or the bowl of local mussels in a spicy broth with paprika-streaked chorizo.

Casual oasis

Sitting in one of the luxuriously large black leather booths that are farthest from the clamor at the bar, we’re comfortable, and it’s quiet enough to talk. In fact, if we hadn’t come up through the mall from the (complimentary) parking lot, we’d never guess that’s where we were. That’s because Westside Tavern fronts Pico Boulevard and its street-scape, giving the restaurant a sense of place. The handsome space, designed by L.A. architect Tony Pleskow, features lots of wood and black turban-shaped lamps hanging over the wooden tables.

To give the restaurant a more casual feel, cotton dish towels (your napkins) are rolled up around the silverware on each table. The menu is one oversized page with wine list and cocktails on the back, so it’s all laid out in front of you, except for the day’s specials, which are chalked on a blackboard at the front of the room.

Salads are main course-sized, perfect for two and tossed together with top-notch ingredients. The chicken Cobb is excellent, made from spit-roasted chicken with all the usual suspects -- avocado, bacon, hard-boiled egg, blue cheese, tomatoes -- dressed in a lemon-mustard vinaigrette. Only the Dungeness crab cake salad came up short, mostly because the crab cake had more filler than crabmeat.

On my first visit, innocent of how big some of these plates could be, we were stuffed before we reached the main courses. Even so, the lamb French dip tasted awfully good until I enthusiastically took a second bite and the rosemary au jus ran down my arm into my sleeve.

Another messy but good sandwich is ham and fried egg, sort of an American version of a croque monsieur made with ham from Nueske’s in Wisconsin (one of my favorite bacon purveyors), an egg fried sunny-side up and a little Gruyère and Mornay sauce on brioche. Rich, almost too rich.

Hitting the spot

I can see how you’d have to pace yourself if you’re going to the movies: Order too much and you might have trouble getting to the film on time, or you might even fall asleep in the middle of the show.

However, any of the main courses make a fine supper on their own. Especially the beef short rib pot roast served standing up on the bone with glazed carrots and excellent mashed potatoes, or the grilled prime flatiron steak with fresh-cut fries and bearnaise sauce, a steal at $22. Fish and chips made with fresh ale-battered halibut impresses too. And I loved the addition of tarragon and dill to the tartar sauce.

The weak point may be the pastas, over-sauced, not quite al dente, overambitious.

There’s no complaining about the desserts, though. Again, don’t even attempt to polish one off on your own unless you’re angling for a spot on “The Biggest Loser.” If you can get just one, make it the brown-butter apple pie, a whole deep-dish pie laden with apples in a crumbly buttery crust with a ball of butter-pecan ice cream on top. Then there’s the pretty little lemon meringue pie with almond-graham cracker crust, a classic even if a tad too sweet.

For a while, the trend has been for young and even not-so-young chefs to open modest neighborhood spots. Schwartz is bent on proving that when an experienced chef puts his or her mind to it, it’s possible to do it on a larger scale in that least sexy of locations, a shopping mall.

Westside TavernRATING: ** LOCATION 10850 W. Pico Blvd.(at Westwood Boulevard), Los Angeles; (310) 470-1539; Handsome California “tavern” at the Westside Pavilion with a 50-foot mahogany bar and roomy black leather and wood booths just steps away from the escalators to the AMC movie complex. Cheerful and fun, Westside Tavern features chef Warren Schwartz’s (ex-Saddle Peak Lodge and Whist) take on seasonal, affordable food.SERVICE Nice and friendly.PRICE Appetizers, $9 to $13; soups and greens, $9 to $19; sandwiches, $13 to $15; main courses, $17 to $24; desserts, $7 to $9.BEST DISHES Fresh-cut salt and vinegar chips; crispy blue lake green beans; California cheeses and cured meats board; mussels with chorizo; spit-roasted chicken Cobb salad; James Ranch lamb French dip; Nueske’s ham and fried egg sandwich; ale-battered halibut with salt and vinegar; beef short rib pot roast; spit-roasted lemon and mustard chicken; grilled prime flatiron steak with fresh-cut fries; brown-butter apple pie; lemon meringue pie.WINE LIST Quality cocktails, plus affordably priced wines by the glass and carafe, mostly from California producers, some of them their second labels. Corkage fee, $15.BEST TABLE One of the big, roomy booths along the wall or windows.DETAILS Open for dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday and 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; bar stays open an hour later. Lunch begins July 7. No reservations. Full bar. Complimentary parking in lot in back.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.