Originally published December 14, 2014 at The Los Angeles Beat
Have you got a special occasion meal coming up that doesn’t necessarily call for elegance, but rather calls for celebration and fun? Are you looking for some out-of-the-ordinary, old school places with genuine character for a joyous get together? If you’re willing to risk upsetting your foodie/no-gluten/vegan friends with a menu that’s stuck somewhere in 1972, then try one of the 5 eclectic restaurants listed below. You’ll find that atmosphere is their main selling point, but if you’re like me you’ll find that is more than a fair trade…
If you’re looking for authentic character head down to Wilmington, near San Pedro, and the incomparable Chowder Barge. Located over some railroad tracks, down some stairs and in a somewhat hidden location, it is L.A. Harbor’s only floating restaurant. Built in 1934 as a support vessel for the film Mutiny on the Bounty, it was cemented in place and turned into a restaurant in 1974. With amazingly cheap food prices on burgers, fish & chips and of course tasty chowder, you can actually pull up on your boat, tie down your rig and have a strong drink at the bar inside while fantasizing that you are co-starring in an episode of Magnum P.I. The interior is straight out of the mid-’70s, complete with wood beamed ceilings and the prerequisite hanging cone fireplace. This is thankfully not a place to hobnob with tourists, but rather a place to experience local atmosphere and real flavor in a most intriguing setting- right on L.A.’s docks.
The Chowder Barge: 611 Henry Ford Avenue, Wilmington, CA 90744; (310) 830-7937.
*Offbeat L.A. tip: Search directions in advance well. You will likely have trouble finding this hidden gem.
How about a Yukon style dinner experience at a rustic-themed hunting lodge where the roof is bedecked with faux snow and its eaves hung with glistening faux icicles? The interior of this vintage restaurant chain gets even more interesting. Within its darkened cabin-like interior you will find wood beamed ceilings, red leather seating, stained glass as far as the eye can see and life-sized taxidermy bears. The first Clearman’s North Woods Inn was opened in San Gabriel, near the edge of Pasadena, in 1966, followed by another in Covina in 1967. A third location was added in La Mirada in 1989, which can be seen from the north-bound 5 freeway. Bowls of peanuts are placed on each table and signs encourage patrons to festively “Throw Peanut Shells on the Floor”. The menu is standard surf & turf with enormous portions, and this would be a place to come to order a steak as big as your face. A reasonably priced Happy Hour is held in the cool and woodsy bar area, with discounts on both drinks and certain appetizers. Celebrated for their cheese bread and cabbage salad, these may be the only menu items, besides a few other appetizers, that your vegetarian friends will be willing to eat.
7247 Rosemead Blvd., San Gabriel, CA 91775; (626) 286-3579.
540 N Azusa Ave., Covina, CA 91723; (626) 331-7444.
14305 Firestone Blvd., La Mirada, CA 90638; (714) 739-0331.
Perhaps you are more interested in getting lessons in aviation history while having a boozy Sunday brunch? The Proud Bird, opened in 1965 and located directly under the flight path of planes arriving and departing from LAX airport, is fun for all ages. While watching the planes fly overhead you can peruse at least a dozen life-size models of historical airplanes strewn throughout the exterior grounds. Inside, display cases pay tribute to famous pilots and are jam-packed with interesting airplane memorabilia. Again you will find a typical surf & turf menu, but the all-you-can-eat Champagne Sunday Brunch, held also on holidays, is probably the way to go. The bar inside also holds a Happy Hour with discounted food and drink prices to have an easy excuse to visit this remarkable vintage restaurant.
The Proud Bird: 11022 Aviation Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90045. (310) 670-3093.
*Sunday Brunch is held weekly from 9am-3pm.
*Happy Hour is held weekdays from 4-7pm.
Right in the heart of Burbank is a most endearing puppet-themed family restaurant opened in 1971. Old-school Italian American food, ordered from a central counter, cafeteria-style, makes this a casual, yet fun experience. Pinocchio Restaurant has red leather booths, checked table cloths, mid-century tchotchkes and Pinocchio puppets displayed throughout. The attached Monte Carlo Deli sells authentic Italian products, many of which are hard to find west of Ohio. Wine is for sale by the bottle, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. The food may not win any awards, but the fun environment and inexpensive prices are the draw.
Pinocchio Italian Restaurant & Monte Carlo Deli: 3103 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505. (818) 845-3516.
If you’re looking for traditional barbeque that seems to harken back to another time and place, visit The Bear Pit in Mission Hills. This vintage restaurant has been in business since the 1940s, but moved to this location from Newhall in 1955 when country singer Tennessee Ernie Ford was its original endorser in ads. With saw dust on the floors, wagon wheel-shaped light fixtures, wooden beamed ceilings and kitschy paintings of friendly bears parading across the walls, its a cozy throwback to long ago. Its menu is obviously meat-centric with the standard BBQ side options: baked beans, coleslaw, fries and their much lauded garlic bread.
The Bear Pit: 10825 Sepulveda Blvd., Mission Hills, CA 91345; (818) 365-2500.