It was cold in Lake Arrowhead, with snow from a recent winter storm still piled up where plows had pushed it to clear roads and parking lots. Despite the short time it took to hustle from the car into the Saddleback Inn, the warm, cozy atmosphere was certainly welcome.
This building was originally the Raven Hotel, constructed in 1917. The twenty-eight room, three-story English Tavern was the dream castle of two sisters from the Midwest. In the decades to follow, it played host to Howard Hughes, the Charles Lindberghs and numerous Hollywood celebrities. Now totally restored, it's been declared a historical landmark.
On the far side of the Victorian-style lobby is the Saddleback Food & Beverage Co., a bar and restaurant that serves inn guests but is also open to the public. We were ushered to a booth with swag drapes of dusty-rose velvet, trimmed with fringe. They complemented the floral carpet of multicolored roses against a green background. Gas light replicas cast a subtle glow over the room, that even with its lace and frills, is not overly obtrusive.
The dinner menu is pseudo French-American, loaded with classic entrees like veal Oscar, veal Marsala, steak au poivre and shrimp scampi, along with linguine with clam sauce, broiled lobster tail, New York and filet mignon steaks and seafood Wellington.
There's nothing trendy among the appetizer selections either, but care in preparation and up-to-date techniques saves this from being just old-fashioned food. Our order of fried zucchini had been cooked in fresh oil, heated to the correct temperature and wasn't the least bit greasy. Granted the dish began as a frozen product, but as a quality frozen product with a light batter that clung to the French fry-sized vegetable sticks. A serving ample enough to be shared was served piping hot with blue cheese and honey-mustard dipping sauces.
Slightly thicker versions of the same sauces appeared as dressings for the dinner salad, included with entrees (an option to soup). Unfortunately, the croutons had not received the same care as the zucchini sticks and were overly greasy. Greens, however, were fresh and crisp, the cherry tomato was ripe and chilled forks added a nice touch.
Pasta for the a la carte fettuccine Alfredo was cooked perfectly al dente and the cream sauce was rich, yet surprisingly light. A good example of a well-prepared classic.
Service was friendly and our questions were answered honestly. The kitchen was consulted on what brand of frozen zucchini was used and there was no attempt to disguise which items were commercial and which were homemade.
We learned all the restaurant's breads are made on the premises. The light wheat loaf served at dinner was very acceptable, but we were told the muffins available at weekend brunches should not to be missed.
When it came to entrees, teriyaki steak, billed as a large New York steak "topped with our own special sauce," was another example of the chef's light hand. Their version is indeed special, not overly salty as is so often the case.
Veal Oscar was lightly breaded and sauteed. Asparagus was fresh, but the crab could have been fresher. The dilled carrots served with both entrees made a better accompaniment to the steak, conflicting with the veal's bearnaise sauce.
There's a sizable wine list, predominantly domestic and several offerings by the glass. Another plus--non-alcoholic wines are offered by both the glass and bottle.
A dessert tray had three or four offerings, but none were too tempting to resist after learning they were not made in the restaurant. Probably a saving grace, calorie-wise, anyway.
Today the local mountains provide a weekend escape for far more than the rich and famous. However, with the main portion of Lake Arrowhead Village having been rebuilt in the last few years, the Saddleback Inn is one of the few places left in the area that offers an opportunity to step back in time and enjoy some favorite classics in a historical setting.
Saddleback Food & Beverage Co., 300 S. Highway 173, Lake Arrowhead; (714) 336-2017. Breakfast ($3.50 to $11.95) is served Monday through Saturday from 8 to 11 a.m.; brunch ($6.50 to $12.95) is offered Sunday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; lunch ($2.25 to $7.95) is served Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner (entrees, $12.95 to $27.95) is served Monday through Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. No reservations. Visa, MasterCard and American Express credit cards accepted. Lot parking.