Most people do not go out to eat. They go to restaurants for romance, comfort or adventure. If you're looking for the latter, Los Angeles may have more of your kind of restaurants than any other city in the country. It certainly has more books telling you about them. Herewith a guide to the offbeat guides. (Some of these books are hard to find, but all of them were purchased in local bookstores in the last two weeks.)
Roadfood and Goodfood by Jane and Michael Stern (Alfred A. Knopf: $10.95).
Michael Stern and I went to the same college, and I used to spend hours dreaming up ways to get him to take me out to eat. Once we actually spent the afternoon studying for a History of Art 272 exam together, and I tried to get up the courage to suggest that we go out and get some dinner. I finally did. He was not terribly enthusiastic, and I think we ended up eating potato chips and candy bars.
Marriage has obviously changed him; read any of the wonderful books that he and his wife Jane write together, and you instantly know that these are people who will drop almost anything at the very mention of a restaurant. They have scoured the country for the best regional restaurants and their books are so joyful that they make you want to run right out to your car, jump in and keep driving until you get the Clam Shack (in Maine) or Doe's Eat Place (in Mississippi).
What they do not do, however, is make you very eager to do much local eating. These books, recently re-released in a single very fat volume, include a lot of California restaurants but it is clear that the authors are based in the East. Buy the book for the sheer pleasure of reading it, or for the next trip you take to almost anywhere in the country. Buy it as a present for your aunt in Dubuque. But when it comes to looking for good local restaurants, any of the following guides will serve you better.
Fantastic Dives by Elliott Koretz and Michael Nankin (J. P. Tarcher: $6.95).
The subtitle is "A Guide to L.A.'s Best Hole-In-The-Wall-Dining," but that is too modest a title. This is the only local guide to the Americana that the Stern's seem to be seeking. Unlike other offbeat guidebooks, which concentrate on ethnic exotica, this book includes a loving look at our own regional restaurants.
Here is a page on William Gore's Cobbler Factory in Pasadena; Mr. Gore, you should know, keeps his recipes in a safe-deposit box and shows them to nobody, not even his children. The authors describe the ribs at Carl's Bar-B-Q and Dirty Rice as "practically a religious experience." They seem to think that there's a religious feeling about Chili John's too. The oldest restaurant in Burbank is, they say, devoted to the worship of chili. The authors also have good words for Uncle Bill's Pancake House in Manhattan Beach and Bobby's Coffee Shop in Woodland Hills, and lots of other little restaurants proudly named for their owners.
There is, however, a problem with this book: it was published four years ago. It is not that the book is out of date: most of these restaurants have been around for years, and they're not going anywhere. But new places are opening all the time, and if anybody can unearth great little American restaurants it's the authors of this book.
Hollywood's Ethnic Restaurants: Cheap and Terrific by Jerry Mundel (Tandem Associates: $6.95). Not easily found in bookstores, but available by mail from 2578 Verbena Drive, Los Angeles 90068. (Total cost, with tax and shipping is $8.40; the phone number is (213) 464-2361.)
"Do you feel guilty when your total tab comes to under $25 for two?" asks the author. Then you can forget about this book. "What is your feeling about a restaurant where speaking English puts you in the minority?" If this makes you uncomfortable, so will this book. But if you really like to eat and have an adventurous spirit, this new and attractive guidebook to Los Angeles restaurants should be on your bookshelf.
Mundel is not a dash-in-and-eat sort of reviewer. He sounds like he lives at some of these restaurants and he clearly loves them all. He does more than describe the food in delicious detail; he also writes about the surroundings. Go to the bookstore next door, he exhorts. Don't miss that great improv theater a few blocks away he urges. You'll want to know about that quaint little dress shop he insists. The upshot is that this is more than a book about where to get a good meal for under $10; it is a little ode toHollywood, an answer to everybody who says that Los Angeles is not a real city.
Diving Out in L.A.: Best Dinners Under $6 by David (Cat) Cohen and P. Avry Hacker (Savory Publications: $7.95). Also very hard to find, it can be ordered by sending $8.95 to Savory Publications, 6030 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90036. The phone number is (213) 935-6194.