In his new book L.A.’s Legendary Restaurants, chef George Geary pays homage to dozens of classic eating establishments with historic photos, artifacts, and recipes. More than 100 dishes from the golden age of Hollywood dining come to life via thoroughly researched formulas.
Anybody who remembers (or wants to time travel to) the glory of Imperial Los Angeles of the mid 20th century will want to grab a bowl and start whipping up a batch of Hamburger Hamlet’s Onion Soup Fondue or that hot fudge sauce from C.C. Brown’s. I’m going to agree with the “legendary” label for those (not so much for specialties like the 1970s-era spicy tuna dip from Carlos ‘n Charlie’s on the Sunset Strip).
The book augments impossibly rare photos of Walt Disney at the Tam O’Shanter, Lucy & Desi at the Brown Derby, and Orson Welles at Ma Maison, plus matchbooks, menus, and swizzle sticks sprinkled throughout that help make these old joints jump from the page.
The secret sauce is the collection of more than 100 recipes. A handful, including Miceli’s, Musso & Frank (does Clifton’s count?) still serve the famous dishes Geary teaches you how to make, but even if the restaurant is still open, you might not be served like your grandparents were. The recipe for the Mai Tai at the Formosa Café, for example, differs from the one currently served, which I’m more than a little hesitant to order. On a recent visit to the deflavorized dining room, someone in my party ordered a Navy Grog. The bartender stared at her slack jawed for a moment before sputtering “I literally have never heard of that. We mainly serve cheap beer.”
Geary went to great lengths to replicate the antique foodstuffs—with minor concessions (no MSG) to the contemporary palate. Geary discovered the formulas hidden in vintage food magazines, back issues of the Los Angeles Times, and rare cookbooks at Central Library. His test menu had to pass the memory test before they were included. Since there were multiple recipes for Chasen’s chili, and the author had never tried the original, that dish didn’t make the book.
Geary is the son of a Santa Monica carhop who has spent decades teaching, touring, and lecturing about the culinary arts. With stints ranging from cheesecake maker on The Golden Girls to making pastries for Disneyland, Geary is an expert in traditional American food and an master of bringing these long-gone favorites to life. If you’re a complete addict for these kinds of things, here’s the full list. Here are a few of our favorites from in the book.