What is this grand building? Why does it make me think of the Rose Bowl? And can I eat here?
The answer is simple. It's the Pasadena Elks Lodge, and it was designed by Myron Hunt, the Rose Bowl's own architect. It has another New Year's Day connection, too, as a matter of fact. This corner of Colorado and Orange Grove is where the TV crews covering the Rose Parade set up.
And sure, you can eat at the Elks Lodge--most days, anyway, when the Elks aren't meeting. I wouldn't bring you all the way out here for nothing.
The restaurant, a few steps down to your right after you enter from the parking lot, is a true time capsule that '50s revivalists might study in some detail. The elegant verticality motif, for instance: tall, skinny, unframed mirrors spotted at artfully varied heights, and wall lamps with narrow shades a couple of feet long, technically known as haloed downlights. Or the tamed Art Deco motif: On the wall behind the long bar are geometrical clusters of booze bottles with amber backlighting.
It's a rather comfortable room too. There are hanging cork baffles over the bar so the noise level is low, and the whole place is warm and cozy. And reasonable. Bud on draft is 75 cents for a 12-ounce glass. One imagines Andy Rooney could be happy here.
The food is time capsule stuff too. Breaded veal cutlet, for gosh sakes. And tomato imperial, a large tomato hollowed out and filled with tuna salad (not bad tuna salad, by the way) served on a vast quantity of iceberg lettuce.
In short, plain Midwestern cooking with all its vices and virtues, the vices being mostly a matter of blandness and heaviness. The vegetables, moreover, are always cooked to death. These are the vegetables many of us were forbidden to leave the table until we'd eaten. As grown-ups we are entitled to leave them on our plates.
What would I recommend? The sandwiches seem good. The steak sandwich comes with a pretty thick genuine steak, and you can't go wrong with the open-face turkey sandwich (a rather elegant touch: the cranberry jelly comes in a glass cup rather than paper). The burgers are not the thick, smoky, back-yard barbecue sort but more like Mom's thrifty Saturday lunch burgers, with thin patties and American cheese, perhaps of some nostalgia value.
Other than that, I'd always go for the specials of the day. While the regular menu choices at dinner include a mushy loin-cut Alaska halibut steak, the specials might be something rather nice, such as pork steak in very crisp breading (with a bland but oddly distracting milk sauce pooled on top), or very tender pot roast in plain beef gravy.
On Fridays and Saturdays you can always get prime rib, regular or a huge bone-in cut of a size suitable for braining a dinosaur. Possibly the best thing I've had is the garlicky corned beef with cabbage, which is always available on Thursdays. Watch out for that horseradish sauce.
The best dessert I've encountered was the coconut cream pie. Note: The "hot fudge" on the hot fudge sundae is actually the cold-spreadable sort.
And if you run into Andy Rooney, say hello.