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Restaurants | First Impressions

At Time-Tested Buggy Whip, They Still Do the Continental

August 24, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

In the ever-changing city soup of Los Angeles, where trendy meets ethnic and the future meets what remains of the past, a handful of restaurants that were once the toast of the town still offer an evening of retro dining. There's Musso & Frank in Hollywood, Dal Rae in Pico Rivera and Taylor's Prime Steaks on 8th Street, to name a few. And then there's Buggy Whip on La Tijera Boulevard in Westchester, which everybody must have passed a zillion times on the way to LAX.

Touted for its bone-in prime rib and Florida stone crab claws, Buggy Whip is an unregenerate blast from the past. On a weekday evening, the lot is filled with big old Caddies and the latest luxury cars along with the occasional family sedan. In the front room, a crooner holds forth at the piano. It's a bit quieter in the sprawling back room, which looks as if the decor hasn't changed a hair since the place opened in 1949. In fact, they've got the same shiny red ruched booths that give Taylor's such a prime retro look.

The cuisine is "continental," the kind of place my parents would have gone for a steak or prime rib when they weren't intent on sipping tropical cocktails at the local tiki lounge. In the best dinner house tradition, Buggy Whip dinners come with soup or salad and your choice of potato. The clam chowder belongs to the wallpaper-paste genre served in old-style California places, the kind of chowder that depresses anyone born and raised on the East Coast. Better get a green salad with Buggy Whip's Green Goddess dressing instead. What's not to like about a gorgeous green dressing made with pureed avocado? I just wish the kitchen hadn't lavished quite so much on my poor greens: They go limp under the onslaught.

The menu proffers stone crab, which is out of season at the moment. The host isn't sure if they have them or not, goes back into the kitchen to check--never to return. But our waiter is quite sure: They don't have any because the season is long gone. Next?

The bone-in prime rib is just fine and could hold its own against that at Tam 'O Shanter in Atwater Village or Lawry's the Prime Rib in Beverly Hills (though this one is not carved table-side the way it is at Lawry's). Steaks are nicely cooked though a bit short on full-bodied beefy flavor. That giant lobster tail dinner for $48.50 featuring a tail weighing in at a whopping 1 pound ("you could put a saddle on it and ride it," someone jokes) is for those who are more impressed with size than with taste. The baked potato, though, comes with all the fixings, if you so desire--and you probably do.

While dining at Buggy Whip vividly recalls just why continental cuisine has gone into decline, I can think of worse places to while away the hours of a delayed plane, or grab a quick dinner on the way to the airport. On occasion, a little time-traveling can be entertaining--and instructive. And if a martini or Manhattan is part of the equation, even better.

BE THERE

Buggy Whip, 7420 La Tijera Blvd., Westchester, (310) 645-7131. Open daily for dinner, Monday through Friday for lunch. Dinner appetizers, $6 to $11; dinners, $10 to $48.50. Valet, street and lot parking.

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