YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Big Serving of Tradition at the Arches : O.C.'s Oldest Restaurant Puts Friendliness at Top of the Menu


When the Arches opened, Warren G. Harding was in the White House and Prohibition was the law of the land. Seventy-four years later, the restaurant is still going strong. It's Orange County's oldest and perhaps most beloved dining institution.

If you come during the day, chances are that owner Dan Marcheano, decked out in a dark red blazer, will greet you with a hearty handshake. Marcheano's friendly attitude is one of the main reasons the restaurant is still popular. Another is that the taste for this old-fashioned Continental cuisine has never really died. The waiters here wear stiff tuxedos and cook steak Diane and crepes Suzette at your table, just as in the old days.

In fact, the Arches will probably be around well into the next century, along with its unique appointments. Splashy decorative murals hang behind many of the cushy, red vinyl booths, and everything in the intimate, almost surreal dining room has a reddish glow from chandeliers that would look more at home in a New Orleans bordello.

Almost everyone starts a meal at the Arches with cocktails and finishes with a glass of complimentary port. This is one of the few serious restaurants in our area where you can still dine in grand style after the theater; the restaurant stays open until 1 a.m. But even at noon, it always feels like the wee hours at the Arches.

Wine is a serious subject as well. The Wine Spectator has honored the restaurant with its Award of Excellence 11 years running, and the waiters take great care opening and pouring bottles, which is rare in Orange County. The list is dominated by chardonnay and cabernet, but the range of choices is broad. If money is no object, you can get a 1982 Chateau Petrus for $650; if it is, you may prefer the eminently drinkable 1990 Mondavi cabernet sauvignon, $26.50. The wine list also includes several of the premium super-Tuscans from Italy.

The Arches menu is full of old favorites that have become hard to find, such as lobster thermidor and veal Cordon Bleu, and classic sauces--Madeira, hollandaise, bearnaise. There are seasonal specials such as fresh abalone, stone crab claws and--coming in March, straight from Japan--Kobe beef at $100 for a 7 1/2-ounce portion (which is, believe it or not, about half what you'd pay for it in Tokyo). Except at busy hours, the chef will try to accommodate almost any request.

Now the downside. Some of these Continental dishes can be stupefyingly expensive without deserving their high price tags. The stone crab claws, flown in from the famous Joe's in Miami, are $21 for an appetizer portion (around five claws) and $42 as an entree. Reached by telephone, Marcheano justified the $56.95 price on a dinner entree of abalone by explaining that the hard-to-snare shellfish run him $80 a pound.

I tested the waters by ordering the stone crab appetizer at dinner and an abalone steak for lunch. The lunchtime abalone ($27.95) is dipped in egg and fried, and as tender an abalone steak as I've ever had, but I still think it's overpriced, as is most abalone. The stone crab claws were a letdown too. Joe's in Miami serves meaty red claws with a briny sweetness; here, my five claws were watery and lacked the iodine tang of great stone crab.

The waiter looked shocked when we asked to change the claws for something else. He mentioned that no one else had ever been displeased, and then removed the dish from our table with a flourish. Marcheano is a gentleman of the old school. The house policy is to remove an item from a check, or substitute it, no questions asked, whenever the smallest complaint is voiced.


As to the classic dishes, well, they are best described as fun to eat. One of my guests squealed with delight when her lobster thermidor arrived, and it is gorgeous: a split lobster brimming with meat, mushrooms, wine and cream. But she found that a few bites of this dish are enough to sate most appetites, and ended up eating more of the rice and broccoli that came with it than the lobster.

The waiters make a big show out of flaming a steak Diane at your table. They swirl a medallion of prime tenderloin in a pan with two sauces (espagnole and diable), Dijon mustard, chives, garlic and brandy. It's not a dish for those who, like me, prefer their steak plain. Another dish that's fun to put together is shrimp Calcutta, a spicy curry served with a Lazy Susan of condiments: mango chutney, shredded coconut, blanched almonds, raisins and fried bananas. This faux-Indian dish, evoking the days of the Raj, isn't bad if you aren't put off by its sweetness.

You're quite safe with Caesar or Cobb salad, both prepared table-side. The Caesar is intense with anchovy and served with crunchy garlic toasts; the picture-perfect Cobb is full of ripe avocado, crisp bacon and lean turkey breast.

Los Angeles Times Articles