The Christmas season approacheth, and nostalgic Northerners such as I feel like sitting by a fireplace, staring at seasonal decorations and pretending there's snow outside. Five Crowns is built for exactly such activities. How convenient that this year is Five Crowns' 25th anniversary; we can celebrate two things at once.
For anyone unfamiliar with the place, it's that ivy-covered roadhouse nestled among the yellow flowers on Coast Highway in Corona del Mar--the one that looks as if it belongs in a Henry Fielding novel.
Inside, it's filled with even more period sentiment, though at this time of the year the first thing you notice is the Christmas decorations: holly, strings of lights and little sculptures. Then you pass through an Old English lounge to a series of rather fusty dining rooms that manage to charm the socks off you in spite of all their self-conscious antiquarianism.
One of them has a cozy fireplace and Tudor-style walls mounted with china, pewter and 18th-Century landscape paintings (whoa, now, the Tudors were 15th Century!). Another has a wrought-iron chandelier and a myriad of high-backed tapestry chairs which you can sink into and hide from the world. Still another is a charming outdoor patio replete with ferns and rustic furniture, which you enter through authentic French doors. All three are about as comfortable as a hot toddy, and twice as familiar.
Modern, Five Crowns isn't. The captains wear tight, black tuxedoes and strut around rather vaingloriously. The women who wait the tables meet a crueler fate. They're clad in red miniskirts with little white bonnets on their heads: "Upstairs, Downstairs" meets Hugh Hefner.
In honor of the roast beef of old England, Five Crowns is a beefeater's paradise. It's owned by Lawry's, the same outfit that owns the Prime Rib in Los Angeles, and the specialty here is also prime rib. For non-beefeaters, there is a large, generally steady Continental menu to fall back on. There are few surprises.
It should be mentioned that Five Crowns has one of the most extensive wine lists in the entire state. In fact, it is so extensive, they have effectively divided it into two lists.
You won't discover this unless you make discreet inquiries, though. In our case, we found out when the wine captain reported that he was out of a particular wine from the thick, leather-bound standard wine list, and suggested an unlisted vintage of the same wine.
"Does that mean you have wines we don't know about?" I asked.
"Just a minute," he replied. "I'll bring you the Captain's List."
Our eyes popped when he brought it. Now, it's not unusual for a restaurant to have a proprietary list for special patrons or wine enthusiasts, but this list is almost as big as the standard list, and a whole lot more impressively stocked.
This phenomenon came about because of the restaurant's conservative approach to the customer. The management says it doesn't wish to boggle anyone's mind with the unwieldy book that would be needed to list all the contents of the huge cellar. By me, that would be OK if they told you about the other list up front, which they don't.
The food is much less controversial at this restaurant; in fact, the menu is surprisingly small. There are only a few appetizers to choose from, and even fewer deserving mention. For instance:
Chicken and leek soup is tasty, a clear, salty broth with leeks floating on top and some dryish chunks of chicken stuck to the bottom. I've also had wild rice soup, as a daily special, but it reminded me of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom, with a handful of wild rice thrown in.
Pride of the Crowns salad should have been a treat. It's Bibb lettuce with fat walnuts, bacon, Gruyere cheese and herbed croutons, but the whole thing is rather soggy by the time it arrives at the table. Crisp, cold hearts of romaine with a somewhat institutional Stilton cheese dressing is perfectly fine, though nothing distinctive.
Obviously, for an entree you'll be tempted by the prime rib. It's about as good as prime rib gets, with Lawry's famous creamed spinach and a crusty puff of Yorkshire pudding served on the side. True, you don't get served from a silver cart as you do in Los Angeles, but the food is every bit as good. You may have your beef to virtually any degree of doneness or thickness--even "English cut" (otherwise known as deli cut): thinner slices to heighten flavor.
The prime rib is the reason to come here. None of the other dishes is nearly as compelling, but there are a few you will want to know about. Mesquite-smoked goose is one, an unusual offering the restaurant gets from a purveyor in South Dakota. It comes with excellent rosemary roast yams, a gummy corn bread dressing and a tartly appealing apricot Riesling sauce, making it one of the more curious platefuls around. The goose itself, although slightly dry, is loaded with flavor. I'd order it again.
They also have acceptable rotisserie chicken seasoned with basil and thyme, plus a dish they call beefsteak Neptune, with crab legs, asparagus and sauce bearnaise. This dish is exactly like veal Oscar, except for the clever substitution of aged prime beef. You know what? The whole thing works pretty well.
Desserts here work well, too. They have an English provenance, such as trifle, a sherry-flavored cake with strawberries and whipped cream, and creme brulee, which was known as burnt creme before the French got hold of it. There's also a pretty fair straight-up chocolate cake, with a thick, gooey chocolate frosting.
Now, could I interest you in a few inches of snow?
Five Crowns is moderately expensive. First courses are $3.95 to $6.25. Main courses are $14.50 to $23.50.
3801 East Coast Highway, Corona Del Mar.
Open Monday through Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m.
All major cards.