Photograph by Lisa Romerein
There’s a maître d’ in a sporty blazer tending a saucepan of flaming bananas at the next table. Customers are knocking back strong drinks, and the menu before me lists dishes I haven’t eaten in years: oysters Rockefeller, veal Oscar, steak Diane. It would be easy to write off the Dal Rae as a nostalgic amusement, a stubborn relic, but when my veal Oscar arrives, the loin slices topped by crab legs, béarnaise, and a lick of demi-glace, I realize the restaurant has a more complicated relationship with the times. It’s not that the Dal Rae has been left behind but that it sees itself as a defender of dining values that are almost extinct.
The Dal Rae, which has stood on Washington Boulevard in Pico Rivera since 1958, actively counters any number of trends with a revanchist’s glee. Butter is not an option here; it’s a linchpin. A salad is no pastoral ditty with delicate leaves plucked at dawn but a tumble of spinach wilted by hot bacon dressing, or a brawny, anchovy-laced Caesar created tableside. The waitresses are a gravelly voiced bunch, and the busboys tend to wear tuxedos and call men señor. Together they recite, bring, and clear the dishes with the dispatch of a team that has been going into nightly battle for years.
The restaurant gives an undisturbed view of a dining style that emerged when the social aspirations of the 1950s blended together Continental elegance and the rock-ribbed American belief in quantity. Crisp as an iceberg wedge, potent as a horseradish-stoked hollandaise, generous as a pepper steak under a drift of scallions and bacon, it is cast from a mold of restaurant that would go on to launch a million early-bird surf-and-turf specials. But it is the more expensive homages, each attempting to evoke its own version of the Rat Pack double-scotch-and-rare-steak manliness of the era, that have the most to learn. In restaurants, it is being true to convictions that lends timelessness. Steak houses come and go in L.A., but the Dal sails along gaily like it’s always 1958.
The original Dal Rae was opened on 105th Street and Western Avenue in the late 1940s by Ed Dalton and Rae Harris, who lent portions of their names to christen the venture. They quickly sold it to brothers Ben and Bill Smith, Omaha natives who established two others, converting a late-modern diner into the one that remains today, about ten miles from downtown. Back then Pico Rivera was shifting from agriculture to industry. Over the decades a Ford and later a Northrop plant operated in what has become a massive shopping center anchored by a Lowe’s and a Ross Dress for Less. The neighborhood’s industrial roots are apparent only in a nearby truck lot and the horn of a freight train rumbling up from the Long Beach docks.
Even as the area’s manufacturing base vanished, the Dal Rae has stood strong, its towering sign a beacon of ’50s sophistication: neon, fleurs-de-lis, and the words DINING and COCKTAILS. Inside, a fireplace and acres of wood paneling create a clubby atmosphere. The covered patio, with its high-backed rattan chairs, is the fruit of a recent sprucing up, but much of the restaurant remains the same, down to the cabinet of trophies Bill’s ponies won at Hollywood Park. Tufted banquettes fill the dining room. Lorin and Kevin Smith, the sons of Ben and the proprietors since 1996, work the floor, igniting a flambé here, tossing a salad there. No matter how busy the evening, the brothers always stop to chat with customers. They’ve got it down to a routine, of course—I know, for example, that Lorin is a Libra, since he mentions it to each of the many large groups celebrating a birthday. Then again, it’s an increasingly rare pleasure to be in a restaurant where the owners are actually on-site to oversee it.
Though the Dal Rae wouldn’t be the Dal Rae without the Smith brothers presiding over the room, a great deal of the institution’s charm lies in the verve with which it gooses the conventions of modern dining. No farmers are listed on this menu; if anyone is named, it’s the likes of Oscar, Louie, and Diane. (There’s even a Parmesan-sheathed fish entrée called à la Ben, after Lorin and Kevin’s father.) The dishes are also entirely resistant to customization. They will not accommodate your diet, your allergies, or your pet peeves; the menu is one big no, a time-tested kiss-off to the annoying L.A. power play of the special request.
The place is a steak house in the grand manner, which means it divides its focus between prime cuts and French-inspired cuisine. The menu breaks down the entrées by main ingredient—seafood, poultry, beef—but it could just as easily have a section devoted to butter. Garlic butter is utilized for the escargots, drawn butter served with the littleneck clams, lemon butter splashed over the veal scallopini. Hollandaise, the classic sauce of whisked egg yolks emulsified with drawn butter, could be another category. It imparts a golden airiness when folded into creamed spinach for the oysters Rocke-feller, provides the silky foundation of the lobster thermidor, and adds razzmatazz to chicken Monterey when spiked with avocado and tomato.
Henrik Chistensen, the chef, has worked at the Dal Rae for seven years but has been in the business for decades. He cooked at Scandia, the legendary Scandinavian restaurant on Sunset Boulevard whose clean lines and clean cuisine captured—long before Japanese food became popular in Southern California—a stripped-down modernist aesthetic. In the 1970s and early ’80s, Scandia was, particularly with Perino’s on the decline and Spago only a gleam in a young Austrian’s eye, the destination of choice for discerning Angelenos.
Christensen has lightened some of the offerings, if such a term is not sacrilegious. He roasts rather than breads the meat in the veal Oscar, leaves the haricots verts perfectly crisp, and swaps full-bore béchamel for a less dense sauce in the creamed spinach. He’s also introduced some more contemporary dishes (a relative concept here), such as osso buco and even sun-dried tomatoes with the baked Brie. But they’re minor acknowledgments of, rather than concessions to, the world beyond the Dal Rae’s walls. Most items on the menu trace their lineage way back. It was an Italian chef years ago who introduced baked scallops Cava de Oro, an appetizer that requires the trifecta of horseradish with cheese and hollandaise sauces for its magnificent golden crust. For the venerable steak Diane, diable and brown bordelaise sauces are mixed tableside in a hot pan with garlic, shallots, chives, and mustard before being spooned over the fillet and crowned with sautéed mushroom caps in a series of movements that is still captivatingly chic.
Generosity runs throughout a meal at the Dal Rae. After being seated, you’re presented with a boat of iced vegetables. Warm garlic bread arrives just before main courses. But generosity may also be the restaurant’s biggest weakness. Occasionally the wish to be abundant can undermine a dish. That extra handful of Parmesan tossed into the Caesar can render the salad too heavy. The ahi sashimi on toast seems like a contradiction. Chipped beef should come on toast, sashimi with nothing—certainly not with wild greens, capers, onions, feta, remoulade, and bread. For me, it is in the trademark pepper steak where munificence becomes most regrettable. Weighing almost a full pound, the fillet seems to have been seared in advance to save cooking time. So while the pepper crust is powerful, and the topping of scallions, bacon, and bordelaise a lusty invitation to pluck a cult cabernet from the wine list, the meat still lacks the sine qua non of a great steak: sizzle.
Perhaps the scale of the portions has something to do with a wish to make clients feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth. Dinner at the Dal Rae is expensive (those double-cut, herb-crusted lamb chops will set you back $46). I’m glad it is. The price keeps this style conceptually unsullied. If market-driven cooking hasn’t made it past the restaurant’s door, neither has the annoying retro school of cooking in which dishes from another era—deviled eggs seem a favorite—get slapped up for the ironic pleasure they offer the clientele. The Dal Rae doesn’t do irony. By meal’s end, when the flames of desserts such as cherries jubilee are erupting around the room and the staff is gathered at booths to sing “Happy Birthday,” you feel better about people. An old man smiles into the lens of a cell phone. At another table where the plates are being cleared, a teenage son goes to sit between his parents as the grown-ups talk. Here, away from Wii and the electronic web of their daily lives, away from classes and work and driving to and from practice, the generations come together, finding calm amid the Dal Rae’s boisterousness, sighing contentedly in the meal’s glow.