Los Angeles is a city steeped in romance. It’s the magical place where the marquee movie stars of the Golden Age wined and dined, and where lovers of all ages continue to find inspiration in timeless restaurants that pay tribute to that era, either because they descended directly from it, or because they celebrate its spirit through first-class service, enviable real estate or A-list access.
FOR OLD SCHOOL ROMANTICS
More than 20 years after its release, the Cinderella love story Pretty Woman still carries a lot of weight for visitors, and Cicada in Downtown is still known as the “Pretty Woman restaurant.” The funny thing is, the space was Rex Il Ristorante at the time. Nonetheless, you can request the table where Julia Roberts had her snail-eating mishap, and the host will point out where the eagle-eyed waiter stood at the ready to catch the “slippery little suckers.” The space has remained much the same over the years, and it has nothing to do with Garry Marshall.
Rather, the entire Oviatt Building is on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to its breathtaking Art Deco accents and design, dating back to 1928. First opened as an upscale haberdashery, much of the original drawers remain on the ground-floor level, in addition to wood-carved pillars, Lalique-glass doors and a hand-operated elevator. You won’t find any snails on this menu; rather the focus is Italian, with crab-stuffed tiger shrimp in a decadent caviar sauce, and a luscious veal chop served in black pepper vermouth. Visit on the Cicada Nights for live music from the ‘20s through the ‘40s and a special prix fixe menu featuring classics like an iceberg wedge and chicken Kiev. Upscale, preferably period, attire is de rigueur.
In the age of the Great Railway Station, Union Station became the last of its kind in the United States, as the heyday of passenger train travel gave way to the Jet Age. In spite of its grandeur, the building had fallen into disrepair by the time Traxx Restaurant set up shop in 1997. The Red Line was still relatively new, with only a few stops, but chef/owner Tara Thomas was already an established presence in Downtown, and somehow knew it would work. So much so, she opened Traxx Bar in a separate room, just across the hall, simultaneously.
Vintage train stations have a certain charm to them. To sit adjacent to the Grand Concourse, watch the steady flow of commuters and travelers ebb to a calm as evening descends, is an experience the regulars here have come to savor. Many prefer to sit among the tables roped off from the traffic; others prefer the quieter atmosphere at the inside dining room banquettes and the private nook of No. 33. Thomas herself gravitates towards the round table in the front window. Her menu is eclectic and yet autocratic; she cooks what she likes to eat, from jumbo lump crab cakes with a zingy chipotle remoulade to house-cured pork loin with fig polenta.
Matteo “Matty” Jordan opened Matteo’s in 1963, which means it will celebrate its 50th anniversary in November 2013. True to the owner’s roots, much of the menu is an ode to the style of cooking that made fellow Hoboken native and lifelong friend Frank Sinatra a regular. Highlights include a nicely dressed chopped salad and the hearty ossobuco. The piadina, a very thin Italian flatbread stuffed with cheese, similar in appearance to a quesadilla, is an addictive starter or a great bar snack.
The dining room has undergone a makeover that respects its history but improved the experience. The lipstick-red booths are now a more subdued shade of burgundy and the lighting has gone from pitch-black to plenty flattering. Jordan’s vintage train set—both he and Sinatra were hobbyists—above the bar remains a fixture.
Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain is everyone’s fantasy of a nostalgic diner brought to life. Located in South Pasadena, it’s the kind of place you picture teenagers in the ‘50s lingering over classic ice cream sundaes or handmade milkshakes, sipping from their straws, staring across the table in an innocent Rockwell-worthy gaze. But this place is the real deal, a stop along old Route 66 that’s been open since 1915.
Aside from the desserts on offer, it’s also a cute spot for an all-American grilled cheese sandwich or hamburger, while soaking up the old-fashioned ambiance. The flooring, fixtures and soda fountain are restored antiques.
Once a haven for hippies in the ‘70s, Inn of the Seventh Ray hasn’t lost touch with its roots, ever an icon of the health-conscious Topanga Canyon lifestyle. On a bright, sunny day or warm evening, there’s not a bad table on the fairytale patio, also home to many weekend weddings. On a chilly night, the seats in front of the fireplace are by far the most desirable.
Long known as a safe haven for vegetarians, the restaurant continues its commitment to organic, sustainable and local fare, but equal care is given to meats, which are raised in natural settings, free of antibiotics. A vegetarian risotto special is redolent of black truffles, vegan soups are made daily based on the chef’s whim, and Prime hangar steak comes with a huitlacoche potato.
To step onto the decks of the Queen Mary is to step back in time to the grand era of transatlantic travel. Honorary Commodore Everette Hoard likens the “tangible magic” of her majesty to “our Eiffel Tower, our Golden Gate Bridge—the most famous ship since Noah’s Ark.” She has been artfully preserved as a floating Art Deco treasure, since her retirement to Long Beach in the late ‘60s.
Hoard says that one of his favorite places to experience the ship is at Sir Winston’s, the flagship fine dining restaurant located in the back of the stern superstructure. Lady Churchill herself granted permission to name it after her late husband, who was a former passenger. It’s fitting, given the prime minister was a well-known lover of beefsteak, and the Wellington in black truffle sauce here is an elevated classic. Try to snag one of the tables in what ship insiders call the “Sand Hill” section along the large bay window, for stunning skyline views. On weekends, a separate lounge area hosts live piano music.
NEW SCHOOL ROMANCE
The dining room at Providence is a study in minimalism, with clustered seashells along the softly lit walls subtly hinting at the fine dining oceanic fare served here. The extravagance is left to the plating and the polished, professional service staff, who go out of their way to make your meal an experience to be savored, especially the talented sommeliers whose inspired wine pairings invigorate the imagination.
The menu changes with the seasons and the cooperation of the world’s sustainable waterways. Try the tableside salt-crusted Santa Barbara spot prawns; the “ugly bunch” of abalone, geoduck and sea urchin is anything but to more exotic seafood lovers; and deceptively simple-sounding “chowda” is rich with lardo, bacon and, of course, clams. The cocktail program remains one of the best in the city among restaurants not known for drawing a distinct bar crowd. The lounge area is also the only place you can order select items a la carte.
Pour Vous is a parlor-like cocktail lounge that summons vintage France. Owned by Mark and Jonnie Houston, the twin brothers also responsible for rum speakeasy La Descarga and Thai Town’s Harvard & Stone, Pour Vous is a dressy spot that caters to nightlife aficionados who have graduated from the mainstream Hollywood bar scene. There are handcrafted cocktails for every palate persuasion, and the expert bartenders are adept at improvisation—within reason. It’s not the place to order a spicy tequila drink; it is French-inspired, after all.
The food menu is limited to a few simple offerings of oysters, cheese and artisan chocolates; see if you can finesse a cocktail-pairing suggestion. Then turn your attention to the burlesque-style shows inside a giant cage descending from the dome on Thursday through Saturday nights. C’est la vie!
Cliff’s Edge is not the kind of place you stumble onto by accident. It’s tucked away behind a parking lot on bustling Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake—very much a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot. On cold nights, one can slink into a banquette and get lost amid the dramatically dark interior. But the real gem here is the enchanting back patio—a softly-lit secret garden that pulls off retro without resorting to kitsch.
Start with the crispy duck egg, served with earthy mushrooms, maple-braised bacon and fresh arugula—the chef clearly intends all to be eaten together for maximum impact. Comfort food gnudi beautifully blends brown butter, chestnut, nutmeg and parsnip. If the regular menu is ambitious, the specials are downright daring. When available, the uni and poached oysters in béarnaise sauce, is a must-try.
Caulfield’s is located in a charming space tucked off the lobby of the hip Thompson Hotel Beverly Hills. The address along Wilshire at Crescent Drive strikes a power-lunch chord, but the bistro-like vibe of the front room, especially at night, is more pleasure than business. The crowd is a cross section of entertainment industry tastemakers and fashionistas, making for fun people watching. After dinner, be sure and hit ABH (Above Beverly Hills), the seasonal rooftop bar with expansive vistas and fire features. Hotel guests get automatic access; otherwise, have a staff member escort you up, as a key card is required to reach the roof in the elevator.
Among the best dishes are the grilled pizzette with white truffle oil, robiola cheese and minced mushrooms. It’s as though someone tried the wild mushroom and black truffle flatbread from Trader Joe’s and elevated it to gourmet. Also grilled, but in this case on Binchotan charcoal, comes an acorn-fed Spanish pork served with a medley of carrots, dates and pears. The fried artichoke spears make for a sharable starter.
At one time, supper clubs were so plentiful they were a no brainer for a romantic night on the town. But as musical tastes changed, so did the nightlife landscape. Enter the legendary Herb Alpert, who created Vibrato Grill as much for the mostly jazz performers as he did for fans of the underappreciated genre. Past performers have included Seth MacFarlane; Frank Stallone, and Alpert and his wife, Lani Hall. It’s a very grown-up venue, with soft lighting, great acoustics and smart service. Couples vie for the booths on the ground floor and the center tables on the balcony, which overlooks the action below.
The menu reflects steakhouse fare with some eclectic twists. Most of the meat is Prime, but you will also find arancini with truffle oil, lamp lollipops, and a Kobe-style burger with herb aioli, grilled red onions, topped with braised short ribs.
The Lobster as we know it today opened in 1999. In this incarnation, architects worked to incorporate 180-degree views while expanding the capacity of the Santa Monica Pier restaurant. Whether it’s the elusive green flash at sunset you’re after, or you’re ready to flash the diamond ring burning a hole in your pocket, the tables along the glass, facing the neon Ferris wheel, are the most requested. There are sometimes up to four or five proposals a day here.
Whole live Maine lobster is the entrée of choice, especially for many first-time visitors. However, newer dishes are also worth exploring, such as the Thai-inspired grilled albacore with coconut lime, spicy cucumber and roasted nuts. Also, a unique take on surf and turf, combining rich Kurobuta pork belly with perfectly seared day boat scallops, is winning over regulars.
Nobu Malibu first opened in the Country Mart shopping center in 1999. With its relocation just down the road to Billionaire’s Beach-adjacent PCH in 2012, and its stunning patio and constant waves-crashing soundtrack, it’s now pure manifest destiny. Everyone is clamoring for the outdoor tables, so be sure to reserve well in advance—up to a month—for the best odds at snagging one. Then again, the Pacific is visible throughout the restaurant, and the sushi bar and cocktail bar are first come, first served.
Be sure to try a couple of the items available exclusively in Malibu—uni tacos or scallop truffle chips, for instance. Newbies are advised to pay homage to Nobu classics like yellowtail sashimi with jalapeños and rock shrimp tempura in a creamy, spicy sauce. Better yet, have your table captain prepare a special meal just for you.
9360 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310.388.6860
617 S. Olive St., Downtown, 213.488.9488
3626 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, 323.666.6116
Fair Oaks Pharmacy
1526 Mission St., South Pasadena, 626.799.1414
Inn of the Seventh Ray
128 Old Topanga Canyon Rd., Topanga, 310.455.1311
2321 Westwood Blvd., West LA, 310.475.4521
22706 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu, 310.317.9140
5574 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, 323.871.8699
5955 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, 323.460.4170
Sir Winston’s at the Queen Mary
1126 Queens Hwy., Long Beach, 562.499.1657
1602 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica, 310.458.9294
800 N Alameda St., Downtown, 213.625.1999
2930 N. Beverly Glen Cir., Beverly Glen, 310.474.9400
Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air
701 Stone Canyon Rd., Bel-Air, 310.909.1644