If you know there's an 80-year-old winery near downtown L.A., it'll hardly be news to you that it has a restaurant. San Antonio Winery has been serving food since 1974. But you may not know how much spiffing-up has gone on lately.
The simple, functional cafeteria setup has been replaced by a long, smart-looking granite-topped counter where you line up to place orders. A rotisserie and grill have been added. And the homey Italian dishes of the past are making room for fancier newcomers.
The winery ambience is stronger than ever, now that the ash staves that replicate a wine barrel overhead have been sanded to their original golden color. This huge structure soars high over the tables where you eat. Real wine casks are stacked at the back, and more are on a ledge at the opposite end of the room, along with big, bulging demijohns brought from Italy.
At the start of the cafeteria line, a table displays samples of specials. You might, for example, see chicken ravioli in a creamy, pale orange sauce; eggplant with linguine; pork tenderloin with mushroom sauce; Chardonnay or tequila chicken or citrus chicken, cooked with lemon and lime juices and Central Coast Chardonnay. On Fridays, there will be fish.
Two of the new dishes are exceptional. The rotisserie chicken is as juicy as any you will find. Even the thin, crisp brown skin is delicious, thanks to an overnight soak in a Chardonnay marinade. In addition to the half chicken, the plate includes excellent mashed potatoes and lightly sauteed seasonal vegetables. Add bread and a salad and you have a wonderful meal for $7.95.
If I didn't order the chicken, I would choose the grilled rib-eye steak sandwich. A friend liked this so well at lunch that she returned before closing that day for another taste. The steak, dressed with tomato, lettuce and onion, is enclosed in grilled sourdough or French bread that has been painted with a sauce (the winery won't tell what this is) and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. Good, chunky French fries come on the side, and you also get a salad, again for $7.95.
Old favorites like Florentine lasagna are still around. It's sad, though, that eggplant alla Parmigiana has been demoted to an occasional appearance. I used to go through great mental struggles deciding between these two dishes, each so pleasing that I hardly ever ordered anything else. The eggplant, layered with mozzarella and Romano cheeses and marinara sauce, even wound up as one of the dozen best recipes printed in The Times food section in 1988.
My new concern is whether the rotisserie chicken will be sold out by the time I arrive. That happened once, and there was a half-hour wait for the next batch. So I settled for chicken in a rather understated Marsala wine sauce. This earned me the usual side dishes--mostaccioli with marinara sauce, sauteed carrots and zucchini, bread and a mixed green salad with Italian dressing.
The new grill has made possible grilled chicken and salmon salads ($8.25). These are prepared in advance, which is not the best treatment for salmon--it can become dry and hard. The greens are good, though, tossed with a balsamic dressing. Or you can choose an antipasto plate combining marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts or salami and cheese or olives, vegetables and peppers.
San Antonio Winery is owned and operated by the Riboli family. Several family members are always there, working in the restaurant or tasting room. They not only promote a friendly atmosphere but supervise the operation closely.
Perhaps that is why the food has been so consistently good over the years. The restaurant is the special interest of family matriarch Maddalena Riboli, and she is usually present to check out the day's offerings.
Wines by the glass or bottle are set out just before the cash register, but there are plenty of alternatives for non-imbibers and good cappuccino for after lunch. On your way out, you can browse in the gift shop and tasting room.
Lunch, the prime time here, is generally busy, and sometimes there's live music. The restaurant stops serving at either 5 or 6 p.m., depending on the day, ruling out dinner for anybody but early birds.
The winery is a couple of blocks off North Main Street in a quiet industrial area. Large signs tell motorists where to turn, and there is plenty of parking, either on the street or in the winery lot.
San Antonio Winery, 737 Lamar St., Los Angeles, (213) 223-1401. Restaurant hours are 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, to 5 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday. Credit cards except American Express are accepted. Lunches range from $5.95 for a sandwich with two salads (potato and coleslaw) to $12 for fancy pastas such as fettuccine with scampi. What to Get: rotisserie chicken, grilled rib-eye steak sandwich, Florentine lasagna, rosemary chicken ravioli.