Newsletter: Fanning the retro flames at Pico Rivera’s Dal Rae
“Wait for it,” said Mary Melton, as we stood underneath the space-age sign of the Dal Rae in Pico Rivera. It was just dusk. As we watched, the words “Dining” and “Cocktails” illuminated and the restaurant’s name lit up in red and blue neon as the sky darkened around us.
Melton is a fourth-generation Angeleno; we met a decade ago when she was both editor in chief of Los Angeles magazine and editorial director for Emmis Communications, which also owned Atlanta magazine where I worked at the time.
She understood I would appreciate Dal Rae. Friends know I have an affinity for throwback, floor-show dining of a certain era. Or let me say this more plainly: I get off on places that still set food on fire tableside.
I’ve been thinking lately about the longtime survivors of L.A.’s dining scene; this Friday, Sept. 27, Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood turns 100. I haven’t been yet. I intended to go this week but, on the day of the reservation, a Musso’s manager called the friend who’d made the reservation to tell her the restaurant had experienced a flood and was closed. Awful timing for its celebration. Soon enough, I’ll have my stirred martini and a tour of the booths where decades of Hollywood celebrity regulars have camped out.
Melton, who also loves time-capsule restaurants, was among the group that would have been at Musso’s this week; she’s an L.A. historian and has great stories to share. So not long ago she introduced me to Dal Rae, which opened in 1958. As we drove through Pico Rivera, she told me about the area’s past as an agricultural center, and the Ford and Northrop plants that brought jobs in the mid 20th century that then closed in the 1980s and ’90s.
If you haven’t been to Dal Rae but at some point in your life you’ve dined at a Continental relic, you can close your eyes and imagine the place: a room that never sees sunlight (are there windows behind the dining room’s closed shutters?), wood paneling galore, yawning booths, eight shades of brown, servers who have seen it all. A horseshoe-shaped bar sits off in its own alcove.
I love a menu where the most avant-garde dish is baked brie with pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted garlic. Were we hankering for garlicky escargot or oysters Rockefeller? Lobster Thermidor enrobed in cream sauce, Hollandaise and Parmesan? Or chicken Parmesan or, a favorite from the rare fine-dining splurge during my Maryland childhood, veal Oscar crowned with crab?
Yes to the oysters, and then I wanted anything prepared on a trolley beside us. The staff basically parked a cart next to our table for the evening. Melton was patient with my thirst for theatrics, bless her.
First came the Caesar, tossed in a wooden bowl as per the unspoken codification; I wished an egg yolk had been incorporated as the server whisked the dressing together, but he was kind about adding extra anchovy. Then came steak Diane, the evening’s centerpiece. Wafts of garlic as the pan heated over the burner, tournedos and brown sauce added, a moment of simmering, a dramatic glug of brandy; whoosh! The server stood back as the flames shoot up for a few seconds. Then he put the beef in front of us, blanketed with the mustardy sauce and some mushroom caps on top.
For dessert: a tall, pouty Grand Marnier soufflé and bananas flambé (the pyrotechnic finale) over ice cream, with sliced almonds and the odd garnish of canned peach.
There can be thorny notions to consider around retro tableside service; it’s been part of a particular brand of throwback ultra-high-end dining that had a moment again this decade. In a recent sharp piece, my friend Jon Bonne coined the movement “The Great Regression”; he makes important points about some fine lines between nostalgia and reinforced classism.
Dal Rae isn’t revivalist or regressionist; it keeps doing what it’s always done, engagingly. No matter how set in amber the food and setting can feel, the presence of Continental institutions, and the power and privilege they symbolize, is a facet of Los Angeles dining, albeit a nearly extinct one. I don’t think Los Angeles needs the Grill or an outpost of Thomas Keller’s TAK Room, two modern Continental high-flyers in Manhattan. But I’m glad Dal Rae and Musso & Frank Grill still exist to show us where we’ve been, for their timeless pleasures and also for how they can frame the vital ways that Los Angeles has evolved.
Ask the critics
How much do you take into account other attributes besides the food and serving? You have written about the service and will mention the seating, but does noise level come into play, architecture, etc.? I did ask this same question to Jonathan Gold and he wrote that he brought a decimeter to the restaurant to measure the sound level. I’m curious if you do the same.
— Anthony Schaffer, email
At one publication where I gave star ratings, we had essentially broken down food as 50% of a rating consideration and atmosphere and service as 25% each. We don’t give star ratings at The Times currently, but I think I’d put even more emphasis on food these days if pressed to come up with an equation. When the beauty of the setting or the unusual hospitality of the staff uplift an experience, I detail these in the writing as much as I can.
I do not take a decibel reader to meals with me; I know myself too well, I’d forget to take the reading or leave the thing behind. (This has happened in previous gigs.) But I absolutely note in the review when a restaurant is ridiculously loud or, much more rarely, a place for quiet conversation. Also I spend most nights in restaurants and I have grown inured; this is a good reminder for me to keep noise in mind when I’m writing. As with many others in the human race, the older I grow the less I enjoy shouting at someone across the table.
Top stories this week
- Yours truly has a long review of the Los Angeles restaurant I recommend to friends and readers more than any other: République.
- Gustavo Arellano goes deep on the history of The Times’ coverage of Mexican food. (Does this inspire you to cook? We’ve got recipes.)
- Wild news: Legendary London restaurant St. John is opening a branch in Los Angeles, soon it looks like. Mr. Meehan gives the full backstory.
- Genevieve Ko ushers us into a master class on tapas with Somni chef Aitor Zabala.
- Gevenieve also brings us the most brilliant meal plan for Emmy watching: DIY TV dinners.
- Lastly, the spreadable sausage ’nduja is all over menus in L.A.; Nani Sahra Walker has a story and video on its origins.
Eat your way across L.A.
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