Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a sophisticated food palette. My parents introduced me to fine dining mostly because on the weekends the housekeeper was off, and they wanted to go out, not once but twice. Saturday was for more formal dining, and Sunday was always casual.
Of course in the fifties and sixties we were not offered the complex varieties of the cuisines of today, but we still enjoyed our food adventures just as much. The most popular restaurants in my city were on La Cienega Boulevard, well known as Restaurant Row. Our two favorites were Lawry’s the Prime Rib and Steers for Steaks. Lawry’s has always been acknowledged for their savory prime rib and signature salad, tossed at the table in an ice cold spinning bowl. Steers offered a succulent culotte steak and fresh garlic bread with copious amounts of butter that I can still taste today. Restaurant Row inspired Pacific Southwest Airlines to offer a weekend excursion built around it
When we didn’t feel like driving, we could take just a short two-block walk from our home and arrive at several of our favorite weekend dining spots. Cafe Swiss on Rodeo Drive is where I tasted my first cuisses de grenouille (frog legs) with butter, lemon and parsley and fell in love with escargot, vichyssoise and crepe suzette.
Ah Fongs on Beverly Drive was our favorite for Chinese food. Their Beef Soo Chow and Rumaki were out of this world, and in the late sixties it was here where I tried Chinese Chicken Salad for the first time. It was the only Chinese Restaurant around, and it was very popular for Sinatra and the rest of the Hollywood elite.
A favorite of mine was an Italian restaurant a few blocks west called Peppino’s. I loved the red leather booths dressed in white formal tablecloths and the tuxedo-clad waiters with their Italian accents, but what always drew me back was the big cart pulled up to the table by a special chef who would toss the Caesar Salad into a giant wooden bowl — one-minute eggs, olive oil, lemon juice, fresh parmesan cheese, garlic, lemon juice and anchovies.
Fine restaurants fifty years ago offered an experience that is rarely available in even the better of the fashionable restaurants of today. Among the things I miss the most are a quiet ambiance, professional waiters and waitresses whose goal in life was pleasing their customers, fine linen and tableware, and the absence of cell phones.
My favorite Caesar Salad recipe:
18 to 24 crisp, narrow leaves from the hearts of 2 heads of romaine lettuce, or a package of romaine hearts (about 1 pound)
1 cup plain toasted croutons
1 large clove garlic, peeled
1/4 cup or more excellent olive oil
1 large egg
freshly ground black pepper
1 whole lemon, halved and seeded
2 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese, imported Parmigiano-Reggiano only
Special equipment: A large mixing bowl; a small frying pan
Preparing the salad components:
You will probably need 2 large heads of romaine for 3 people — or use a commercially prepared package of “romaine hearts,” if they appear fresh and fine. From a large head remove the outside leaves until you get down to the cone where the leaves are 4 to 7 inches in length — you’ll want 6 to 8 of these leaves per serving. Separate the leaves and wash them carefully to keep them whole, roll them loosely in clean towels, and keep refrigerated until serving time. (Save the remains for other salads — fortunately, romaine keeps reasonably well under refrigeration.
To flavor the croutons, crush the garlic clove with the flat of a chef’s knife, sprinkle on 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and mince well. Pour about a tablespoon of olive oil on the garlic and mash again with the knife, rubbing and pressing to make a soft purée.
Scrape the purée into the frying pan, add another tablespoon of oil, and warm over low-medium heat. Add the croutons and toss for a minute or two to infuse them with the garlic oil, then remove from the heat. (For a milder garlic flavor, you can strain the purée though a small sieve into a pan before adding the extra croutons. Discard the bits of garlic.)
To coddle the egg, bring a small saucepan of water to a simmer. Pierce the large end of the egg with a pushpin to prevent cracking, then simmer for exactly 1 minute.
Mixing and serving the Caesar:
Dress the salad just before serving. Have ready all the dressing ingredients and a salad fork and spoon for tossing.
Drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil over the romaine leaves and toss to coat, lifting the leaves from the bottom and turning them towards you, so they tumble over like a wave. Sprinkle them with a generous pinch of salt and several grinds of pepper, toss once or twice, then add the lemon juice and several drops of the Worcestershire, and toss again. Taste for seasoning, and add more, if needed.
Crack the egg and drop it right on the romaine leaves, then toss to break it up and coat the leaves. Sprinkle on the cheese, toss briefly, then add the croutons (and the garlicky bits in the pan, if you wish) and toss for the last time, just to mix them into the salad.
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