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Skipping Down The Sunset Strip

May 10, 1987|RUTH REICHL

The Sunset Strip has been a Hollywood hot spot for as long as anybody can remember. The stars have always come out here at night. Ciro's and the Mocambo are long gone, of course, but sprinkled in among the flashy new places on West Hollywood's venerable Strip--Spago, Le Dome, the astonishingly popular Chin Chin--are some seasoned restaurants that cling stubbornly to older ways, each offering a different perspective on the past.

HOLLYWOOD AS HOMETOWN

Eric Blore, that quintessential butler, was the first person to order a drink at the Cock 'n Bull. It was April 21, 1937, at 4:02 in the afternoon.

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the restaurant sent out little booklets reminding us that this has been a Hollywood hangout for as long as anybody can remember. F. Scott Fitzgerald used to drink here, and Sinclair Lewis and Somerset Maugham. So did just about everybody else who has ever been anybody in this town. But if their ghosts are anywhere around, they're hard to sense; this place is about as glitzy as your Aunt Tilly's parlor.

What it lacks in romance, however, it makes up in coziness. It's easy to see why so many people think of these many rambling rooms as a sort of home away from home, a reference point, a place that makes them feel good. The Cock 'n Bull could be anywhere in America, sitting proudly on Main Street. It's one of those American institutions that serves good drinks and lots of food to all comers.

There are nice waitresses (I didn't look, but I'll bet ours was wearing crepe-soled shoes) who encourage you to drink Moscow Mules, a wonderful combination of ginger beer and vodka served in a frosty mug. It was invented at the restaurant. She then tells you the rules, which are that you can go back to the buffet twice and get two different entrees each time. (There is an a la carte menu, but she hardly bothers to mention this.) At dinner, the buffet costs $12.50 a la carte, $16 with appetizer, salad and coffee.

Personally, I'd skip the Welsh rabbit (which reminded me of library paste on damp toast), the floury clam chowder and the large but rather soggy salads, and head straight for the buffet. There you'll find things like prime rib and turkey and lamb, to be dished up with mashed potatoes or zucchini or the like. While you're at the buffet, the waitress is busy putting warm crumpets and butter and, odd at dinner time, jam on the table. This may not be great food, but there's sure a lot of it.

But most people come here looking for more than something to eat. As I was walking through the dark, comfortable bar last week, I passed a man in a booth reaching across the table to take his date's hand. "I'm so glad to be here with you," he was saying. "You're my favorite girl and this is my favorite restaurant. I feel like I've just brought you home."

I repeated this story to a finicky gourmet, the sort of person who normally wouldn't be caught dead eating at a buffet. To my surprise, he replied, "I know exactly how that man feels."

Cock 'n Bull, 9170 Sunset Blvd., (213) 273-0081.

THE FADING STAR

Erich von Stroheim isn't a captain at Scandia, but he should be. You can't help imagining that that's him over there at the other table, looking disapproving while he slices salmon and serves wine.

Cast Gloria Swanson as the restaurant itself, a star who has seen better days but doesn't quite realize that they're over. We are, of course, on Sunset Boulevard.

Scandia still has the airs of a star. Neither the menu nor the room itself have changed very much, but they've both become a tad tired since the departure of famed restaurateur Kenneth Hansen. The service hasn't changed much either, though, and that is a pleasure. Eating here is like returning to a more gracious time, a time when waiters weren't eager to tell you their names, their ambitions or their telephone numbers. They are professionals here, not aspiring actors, and they practice that effortless sort of service that is so smooth you hardly even notice it. You talk and eat your food without quite realizing that glasses are being filled, old plates are disappearing and new ones being set before you. It is all so unobtrusive that you hardly notice that the waiters occasionally wear a weary air.

But who could blame them? This Continental and Danish food is just a shadow of what it used to be. The cured salmon, once a wonder, has become rather flabby, and the bof med log , a steak that once was served with onions freshly fried to near blackness, is now served with crispy onions that taste like they were fried yesterday.

One thing does remain from the past, however--the wine. This list is still filled with treasures--older American wines no longer available and certainly not at these prices. If you have a hankering to taste some hard-to-get Swan Zinfandels or Stony Hill Chardonnays, this is the place to do it. That, combined with the gracious old-fashioned service, is enough to make you wish that the kitchen would get back on track.

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