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RESTAURANT REVIEW : To the Manor Born: Comfort Food at a Comfortable Manor

November 15, 1991|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although I've lived most of my life in and around Los Angeles, there are many curious nooks and crannies of this city still revealing themselves to me. Recently, I found myself on Alvarado Terrace, a wide, short, and surprising street slung from a point on Pico to the intersection of Alvarado and Hoover. While the surrounding area is low-income and multicultural, Alvarado Terrace is a slice of L.A.'s genteel and moneyed past preserved.

Six houses and a grand church have all been saved as historical landmarks. Perched on high lawns, these lovely, sprawling products of early 20th-Century architectural excess overlook a wide, grassy median strip known as Terrace Park. Gazing at the houses, with one's back to the small homes and apartment complexes across the street, you can, with some myopia and imagination, imagine what it used to be like in one of Los Angeles' prime neighborhoods 80 years ago.

The Powers House is considered an example of Mission Revival architecture at its most fanciful, certainly, with all its stucco curlicue and Victorian flourish; its resemblance to a mission would only be allowed by a particularly silly sect. Occupying the Powers House, at present, is an eating establishment already known to savants of Los Angeles architecture: the Salisbury Manor. That's right. Salisbury Manor, once located at L.A.'s Salisbury Manor, is now in the Powers House. And it's still called Salisbury Manor.

Inside, the rooms are deep greens and roses. The floors are wooden, partially covered with silk rugs. Lace hangs in the windows. Sunlight streams through beveled glass. Tables are set for diners in the downstairs rooms and the upstairs, full of restored bedrooms and baths, is open for viewing. There is also a gift shop full of stuffed dolls, teddy bears and hand-hewn wooden toys.

The establishment exudes precisely the cozy Victorian ambience to which Marie Callender's restaurants aspire: an aesthetic that future house-historians might refer to as the California Bed and Breakfast School.

Salisbury Manor, which does a brisk business with private parties, is open to the public at limited hours for lunch and dinner (see below). Dining at either meal is by reservation only. Prices are fixed at both lunch ($22 per person) and dinner ($30 per person). The menu, which is the same for lunch and dinner, changes weekly.

There are four appetizers, four entrees, and four or five desserts from which to choose. All of these rather precise requirements may make the restaurant sound, well, a little snooty, but that's a complete misapprehension: It's very friendly, the perfect place, in fact, for a luncheon or a birthday or anniversary party.

The food itself is somehow exactly what one might expect in this cheerful, nostalgic context. It's as if it comes from the kitchen of a devoted home cook with the added boon that it is served by a kind and efficient staff.

The week I dined at Salisbury Manor, appetizers included a lamb-and-white-bean soup so meaty and nourishing it could have come straight from some grandmother's own private caldron. An appetizer-size dose of angel hair pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil had a lively, bright taste, and the green salad with walnuts, tomato and feta would offend nobody.

Despite the various ethnic sources represented on the plates, entrees were basic, familiar square meals. A very nice filet mignon sat on linguine with a good, mild, slightly creamy pesto sauce; the meat and pasta was a surprisingly inspired match.

Less exotic than it sounds was a chicken breast served with a fresh fruit salsa, black beans and heavenly sweet fried bananas. Most familiar--even ordinary--was the sauteed catfish with steamed vegetables and a wild rice pilaf.

Desserts ranged from a mild, unremarkable pistachio mousse to a rich chocolate cake to an even more potent fudge-and-walnut pie.

What with the good decent food, a dose of history tempered with nostalgia, a seat in a shaft of afternoon sun and a cup of chamomile tea in my hand, I couldn't help but think there are far worse things in life than a meal on Alvarado Terrace.

Salisbury Manor, 1345 Alvarado Terrace, Los Angeles, (213) 382-1345. Lunch Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; dinner Friday and Saturday nights. Wine only. American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

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