No trip to Burbank, my hometown, is complete without stopping somewhere for lunch. But where to eat on New Year’s Day when most places are closed?
We drove by Portos, our favorite Cuban bakery/deli. It was closed, as was Taste Chicago, a pizza and hot dog joint owned and operated by actor Joe Mantegna’s wife, Arlene. Next stop: Bob’s Big Boy on Riverside Dr.—one of the last remaining original Big Boys and a truly iconic piece of mid-century Americana. Bob’s was open, but had a 20-minute wait, so I put our names on the list and went to the restroom. By the time I came out, Tim had called The Smokehouse, a few blocks away. Apparently he was far hungrier than I was.
“The Smokehouse is open and there’s no waiting!” he told me as soon as I returned. “Let’s go!”
Located across the street from Warner Bros. Studios since the late 1940s, The Smokehouse remains kinda hip, even if one of its signature dishes is “Steak Sinatra” (oy!). The place is packed with Hollywood types eating lunch there during the week. No doubt, fans of The Larry Sanders Show will remember Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) forever trying to get Larry (Garry Shandling) to go with him to The Smokehouse to drink beers and pick-up women.
For locals, however, the place has a much happier and personal meaning. This is still where families and couples go to celebrate special occasions: anniversaries, birthdays, graduations. My sister’s date took her there before one of their big high school dances many, many years ago. Lots of memories have been made at The Smokehouse.
We parked the car and followed a group of Asian tourists into the restaurant’s lobby. The lighting was dim and Frank was singing “My Way” overhead. The tourists were led into a large dining area, while we were taken to a more intimate space with banquettes and small tables. Our wide booth had smooth red leather seats. Four people speaking Russian were seated two tables away. Every so often I could hear them say something in English, like “The Godfather” or “Life is like a box of chocolates.” Ah, the global influence of American culture . . .
We were reviewing the menu (no lunch entries under $19.95) when a woman made a dramatic entrance, explaining loudly that she and her family, who were following close behind, had just come from the Rose Parade in Pasadena.
“My niece marched in a band that came all the way from Philadelphia. It took her four days to fly out because of the east coast blizzard!” she announced to the wait staff (and whoever else was listening). “We got to the parade at 4:30AM. We walked seven miles from the car to Colorado Blvd. I’m exhausted. Bring two orders of garlic bread immediately!”
Not to be outdone, a woman seated across from the parade-goers started telling her story as well. She was eating with her 85-year-old mother whose husband had died last year.
“This is our first holiday without Daddy,” she told Ms. Garlic Bread. “So we thought we’d treat ourselves to The Smokehouse on New Year’s Day! We’re having a bottle of champagne with two orders of Chateaubriand!”
Making a quick check of the menu, Tim whispered “The Chateaubriand is $30 a person!” in my ear before ordering shrimp Louie for himself. I got a Cobb salad.
“Do you live in Burbank?” Chateaubriand asked Ms. Garlic Bread.
“Oh, yes. We’re up on the hill,” she said rather smugly.
“What does that mean: ‘up on the hill’?” Tim asked me in a low voice.
“That means they’re a lot richer than we are,” I snorted, digging into my salad. I decided then that all the world's a stage at The Smokehouse.
We ordered a big slice of cheesecake to go and then went home to watch Larry Sanders on DVD. Welcome to the new year!