In the 1950s and '60s, before freeways, suburbs, new government centers, marinas and smog, when Ventura County was still small towns, citrus groves, strawberry fields and condors, there were two Ventura restaurants where you went for a special evening.
One was the restaurant at the Pierpont Inn, which was not yet separated from the ocean by six lanes of freeway. The other was The Sportsman Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge. Nostalgia being in these days, I figured a 25-year absence from the Sportsman was long enough. It was time I ventured back.
It is still in its original downtown location on South California Street. And, although it changed hands about six years ago when Joe and Jenny Ching took over, the Sportsman is still pretty much in its original shape. Stepping inside, you find yourself in a piece of Ventura that has changed very little in 40 years.
This is not the restaurant for frou-frou eaters looking for dainty pieces of smoked salmon, two-bite lamb chops or difficult-to-pronounce lettuce salads. The Sportsman is just what its name makes it sound like: a bar and meat house.
You come into the Sportsman, pause at the front door to let your eyes adjust to the dark interior with its red Leatherette booths and wood-paneled walls and instantly want a drink and a big piece of meat. Actually the bar can be a little inconsistent. One day the libation is just what it should be. The next, with a different bartender pouring, the drink needs to go back for a little strengthening.
But the meat rarely goes back. Where it does go, frequently, is out the door with you in a little paper bag. These portions are large. Your waitress is not exaggerating when she says, "You'll get plenty of liver." Breaded and then grilled, without the usual overcooking, the liver is truly smothered in fried onions. And I'll put both the filet mignon--about 12 ounces--and the order of three center-cut lamb chops up against any I've tried in the area. And this is not to mention the fact that most of the competition would charge a lot more. There may be finer restaurants in the area, but there aren't many that offer better value.
There is more than meat here. About a third of the menu is seafood. You should try the deep-fried oysters which, like everything else, come in substantial quantity. They're not as gentle as they might be, and the breading is a bit heavy but still, they're satisfying.
That cannot be said for the side dishes, which are best ignored. The vegetables are tasteless and over-cooked. This is surprising when you consider the quality of the salads. The waitress wasn't kidding when she said, "We're known for our blue cheese dressing." It's a crunchy version, which lets you feel the texture of the cheese. The Caesar does well on its own, with thinly cut, seasoned croutons and a tangy, just-right garlicky dressing. One note: You must be an anchovy lover to like this one.
I wouldn't have bet on this being a good place for dessert, but I was wrong. One evening the restaurant was out of the usual chocolate mousse pie and instead came up with a piece of German chocolate cake. It's made by a woman who apparently comes in a couple of times a week to bake. This cake is not too sweet, as some of them tend to be, and it's moist between the layers. It's a wonderful way to end a wonderful meal.
The Sportsman is still sitting there below the old Courthouse on the hill, serving food the same effective way it has for more than 40 years.
* WHERE AND WHEN: The Sportsman Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge, 50 S. California St., Ventura, (805) 643-2851. Open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday; breakfast and lunch on Sunday 9 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m. for dinner. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations accepted. Full bar. Lunch for two, food only, $12-$20. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$46.