The Cafe Rialto in South Pasadena is an old-time neighborhood soda fountain and campus coffeehouse rolled into one, a place that arouses nostalgia even though it has operated only since September.
Where tradition lies is next door in the venerable Rialto theater, a movie house that opened in 1925 as a vaudeville showcase. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the theater is so valued in the community that it inspired a street party in June called "Night at the Rialto." This was one in a series of events that celebrated South Pasadena's 100th anniversary.
The cafe makes the most of this link with a weekly drawing for a poster from whatever film is showing. It does, however, have its own claim to distinction. In fact, the cafe is a museum of sorts. Displayed in eight large cases on the walls is a mind-boggling collection of salt and pepper shakers. Dinosaurs, mice, civic buildings, appliances, vegetables, fruit, disrobed humanity--apparently anything served as fodder for the designers of these humble necessities. It is fascinating that the mundane act of seasoning food should inspire such efforts to titillate and distract.
The shakers were assembled by Paul Richardson, who, with his wife, Kim, owns Cafe Rialto and who also has an interest in the Rialto theater. The collection dates back to the early 1920s, and numbers 525 pairs, about 400 of which are in the restaurant.
A book of shaker lore is on hand for customers interested in these collectibles, and periodicals are set out for browsing in accordance with coffee house tradition. The star of the coffee list is the Cafe Rialto special--layers of steamed milk, espresso and foam in a glass mug. Cafe mocha, which blends chocolate, espresso and steamed milk, is terrific. And there is a soothing nightcap called steamed almond milk that is flavored and sweetened with orgeat. Anyone who has trouble sleeping should drop over for this before bedtime.
The food is simple--sandwiches, salads, a quiche and soup of the day and some desserts. The limited kitchen produces the sandwiches and salads while the quiche, soup and desserts come from outside. In a gesture toward contemporary culinary trends, the Cafe Rialto offers nachos made with blue corn tortilla chips and serves the trendy chips with sandwiches instead of potato chips.
The sandwiches are quite good. Grilled turkey with Jack cheese and avocado was a special one day for $4.50. Roast beef with Cheddar and smoky-sweet barbecue sauce, which is on the regular menu, is excellent. Good bread is essential to a good sandwich, and the Rialto made these with sourdough that I thought came from some special source but was purchased from a nearby supermarket. Nice for a light lunch is the turkey checkerboard--turkey with Muenster cheese, alfalfa sprouts and tarragon-flavored mayonnaise in alternating squares of white and whole-wheat bread.
Good Salad Selections
The Rialto's Chinese chicken salad is better than average, at least I thought so because it contained moist dark meat as well as white, and the sesame-flavored dressing was not sweet. The Cobb salad is another good choice. I can't say much for the desserts because I only tried three--two cakes that were heavy and dank and a brownie that was much better.
The Rialto's menu is small but versatile. A mix and match section combines half-sandwiches with salad or soup and offers a soup-salad pairing. Sandwiches start at $2.50 for a bagel dog with chips and salads peak at $5.45 for the chef and Cobb salads.
Another gesture toward modern tastes is wine by the bottle and glass. The top of the line choice is a Raymond Chardonnay. The house wines are by Gilroy wine maker Thomas Kruse, whose chatty labels suit the ambiance. Tuesday is imported beer night, with beers for $1, and happy hour takes place weekdays from 5 to 7 p.m.
Cafe Rialto, 1021 S. Fair Oaks Ave., South Pasadena, (818) 799-4404. Open daily. Hours from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, to midnight Friday and Saturday and to 10 p.m. Sunday. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Street parking.