The casual American grill is nothing new, but when the formula has been refined to geometric precision, people stand up and take notice.
They're standing in Newport Beach, all right--standing in line for the new Daily Grill in Fashion Island, and it looks as if they will for a long time to come. This bright, Deco-inspired diner, a scaled-down version of The Grill in Beverly Hills, is the third in a Los Angeles-based chain and first to open in Orange County. From the moment its revolving door began to spin, the place has been an unqualified hit.
The idea is bafflingly simple: classic American food at affordable prices. The execution, however, is baffling to a host of competitors who can't seem get to first base with this concept. As Casey Stengel said, "Can't anyone around here play this game?"
Ask Bob Spivak. Spivak is a founding partner of the chain (along with Dick Shapiro and Mike Weinstock), and someone who doesn't play the game with frozen meats, industrial salad dressings or breads with additives you find at water treatment plants. Virtually everything used in Spivak's kitchens, from the tangy sourdough (from Pioneer Boulangerie in Santa Monica) to the wide variety of tasty meats (from Newport Meat Company, now servicing all three Daily Grills) is a quality product; nothing purveyed from institutional suppliers here.
But the Daily Grill's success is not due to anything quite as simple as good materials, and on a busy Sunday evening I got a first-hand glimpse at some of the intangibles. Spivak was present in the restaurant, looking very much the Beverly Hills rake in a natty black suit and Nicole Miller silk tie, holding court with customers and spying on his chefs. Then things got hectic.
What happened next goes a long way toward explaining the chain's success. Like a general joining his own troops in battle, Spivak sprang into action. Suddenly the man was everywhere, carrying plates, filling water glasses and making apologies to people seated at the long counter. He even bused my table--silk tie and all.
This kind of enthusiasm has to be infectious. I ate in this restaurant three times when the boss was not present, and always saw the same kind of energy: courteous managers clearing tables, snappy servers providing crisp answers to questions about the menu, chefs cruising the open kitchen with the intensity of Japanese auto workers.
Planning an intelligent menu helps, too. This menu is extensive, but there isn't a single dish on it that would look out of place in Council Bluffs, Scranton or Eugene. We're talking all-American fare in it's purest form, and deciding what to eat here is bound to the biggest problem.
I'm a sucker for the designer salads, but only if I have help finishing them. The house Caesar is terrific, thanks to a creamy, cheesy dressing, pungent with anchovy and mustard, that coats the greens completely. The Cobb salad is even more imposing, piled up in a pyramidal mound. It's denser than the Caesar because it's so finely chopped, and the finely minced bacon, turkey, avocado, blue cheese and other components make it infernally rich. Even when ordered as an appetizer portion it's more than reasonable for two.
If you come for lunch, there are a host of sandwiches to munch on, most of which come on hunks of that good sourdough (whole grain and deli rye are available on request). The BLT is killer--perhaps literally, if you listen to your cardiologist--made, as it is, with a good half-pound of thick sliced bacon (see "The BLT" in this week's cover story on memorable O.C. sandwiches, this page). The grilled cheese is similarly constructed; it must have two inches of Cheddar in it.
The Reuben is a bit salty, but remarkably lean corned beef makes it one of the most greaseless Reubens anywhere. Only the meat loaf sandwich doesn't do anything for me. It's served cold with a blanket of icy lettuce, thinly sliced like expensive pate, and it's inexcusably bland. You can barely taste the meat.
No first-time luncher should miss the addictive fried onion and potato combination, served for a minimum of two. The onions are thinly sliced and frizzled, piled high atop a flurry of hand-cut potatoes. Everything deep-fried at Daily Grill, incidentally, is done in cholesterol-conscious canola oil, a far cry from the hazards of that thick-sliced bacon.
The same menu is served at lunch and dinner. Tradition, however, holds that the items from the char broiler and the section marked "Daily Grill Specials" be eaten after the workday is spent, at a more leisurely pace than the sandwiches and salads. So does common sense, because these are huge plates of food, garnished with such things as broccoflower (an interplanetary green hybrid vegetable), steamed potatoes, snow peas and steamed string beans.