To understand the appeal of the Chart House, you must understand that it retains the tone of California as it was when the Beach Boys were a fresh cultural influence.
A lot of water has washed ashore at the Cardiff-by-the-Sea Chart House since those glory days, and a sea of change has taken place in California ways. But the place has a sort of lotus-land effect that causes the rush of years to vanish from the mind. Certainly the menu is anchored in the past, a fact obviously not troublesome to the throngs that pack this restaurant night after night.
You still can wear a Hawaiian shirt here in complete confidence. All the waiters do, and they know they're cool--just observe their manner. The only danger in this choice of apparel is the threat of disappearing into the background, since the Chart House shelters almost enough greenery to forest a small tropical island.
The menu is pretty much a verbatim copy of the Southern California culinary Bible of the 1960s. The Big Deals of many years ago remain the hip offerings du jour , especially the top sirloin and chicken marinated in teriyaki sauce, the prime rib, the fish kabob and the veritable icon of local cuisine, shrimp "scampi," seasoned with garlic, butter and sherry, as always, but baked rather than sauteed.
The quintessentially favorite side dish, sauteed mushrooms, retains a place of honor on the menu and is reasonably priced at $3.45.
And, of course, there is the rice (or that rice, as local French chefs intone) flavored as it is only at beach restaurants and without which the Chart House simply would not be the Chart House.
An alternative geared to those who prefer satisfaction over nostalgia is a large, creamy baked potato loaded with all those things that spoilsports say aren't good for you, including butter, sour cream, bacon bits and great globs of cheese.
This is by no means an inexpensive restaurant, and the starters tend to be on the high side, topped by a combination platter of raw and Rockefeller oysters at $11.25. The oysters Rockefeller themselves ($7.25 for a half-dozen) are given a good treatment, although the ratio of spinach to oyster is rather lopsided. The generous presence of Pernod liqueur--a requisite ingredient that many places can't be troubled with--is reassuring. Among other starters are shrimp cocktail, a smoked fish plate, garlic-cheese bread seasoned with jalapenos and a steamed artichoke with a choice of dips.
This particular Chart House features an immense and truly magnificent salad bar, which is included in the price of the entree (the alternative is satisfactory clam chowder) and probably reigns supreme among such fixtures in the county.
One of the more adventurous entrees, the pepper steak, is done rather handsomely, the cracked pepper applied with abandon to the good-sized steak and the brandy sauce well-flavored. The prime rib, which the menu says is the restaurant's No. 1 seller, comes in three sizes, of which the 10- to 11-ounce standard cut seems more than generous. The meat is reasonably buttery and well-flavored.
A piece of halibut, ordered as a special, was an excellent offering--juicy, flaky and well-seasoned.
"The mud pie's really good, you gotta try it," intoned the waiter as he removed the dinner plates, and while he probably had made the same comment 10,000 times, he did have a point. The 5-inch-high wedge of coffee ice cream in Oreo crust, chocolate glaze and chopped nuts looks like Diamond Head and slides down the throat with ease. One order should serve the table.
THE CHART HOUSE
2588 S. Highway 101, Cardiff-by-the-Sea
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Cost: Entrees $14.75 to $21.65. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $45 to $75.