JG and I decided to sample the meatloaf at several local restaurants. Meatloaf, of course, is well known as a “comfort food,” presumably because it elicits visions of home and hearth. It’s not exactly clear why this is so, seeing as how it can be prepared a half dozen different ways. Everybody seems to have their own “special recipe,” often dating back several generations. JG herself makes a mean meatloaf.
Our quest was not linked to these abstract considerations. Rather, we craved its gritty texture, the mélange of mysterious ingredients, and its overall deliciousness. Actually, if the truth be known, I also am partial to chicken fried steak and pot pies.
1. Lamplighter, 5043 Van Nuys Blvd, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403, (818) 788-5110. I have driven by it hundreds of times, and it’s alleged to be a local institution. Ambience: low. For some reason, we were seated in the bar, even though the restaurant was empty. Two “big screen” TVs blasted a football game (which did become mildly engrossing after awhile – one of the teams was UCLA). Seating was the classic curved booth with faux red-leather cover. The service was desultory. As for the meatloaf itself, it was about ¼” thick, and had been fried, not baked. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but it sure wasn’t meatloaf. It was accompanied by a classic baked potato and tired supermarket-mix lettuce. Won’t be revisiting.
2. Hamburger Hamlet, 4419 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91403, (818) 784-1183. It was crowded when we got there, and we were seated in the bar. I ordered a margarita, which has got to be one of the worst I’ve ever tasted – mainly comprising that horrible green sludge. Our waiter, clearly an out-of-work actor, was snooty and slow – not a good combination. The meatloaf was edible, but not memorable. We experienced the dreaded “LA slowdown,” when it came time to get the check. You would think that restaurants like Hamburger Hamlet thrive on quick turnover. The curious behavior of slow check presentation is evidence to contradict this hypothesis. Unanticipated plus: the parking lot attendant was one of the most gregarious I’ve ever seen, he performed his duties with aplomb.
3. Solley’s, 4578 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91403, (818) 905-5774. Solleys is part of Jerry’s Famous Deli, a local chain situated modestly above Denny’s, but definitely below places like Red Lobster and Olive Garden (as unappetizing as they are). Ours was habituated only by “regulars,” who were greeted cordially, as others (including us) were ignored. We were surrounded by diners who persisted in discussing intimate details of their personal lives, in exhausting detail. This type of pleasant interaction between friends, should be encouraged. The conversants, however, should not broadcast it across the room. I can tell you all about how Muffy’s doing at school. Our waitress was bored and listless. The meatloaf was good, though far from exceptional. It also was way over-priced.
4. Marie Callender’s, 14743 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91403, (818) 788-3983. We used to go to another branch of this chain for spinach salad, which was excellent. That was about a quarter of a century ago, and I’m sure it’s undergone a half dozen ownership changes, since then. Its décor is post-fern bar, with wood paneling and country-style oak furniture. The service was friendly and efficient. The meatloaf was tasty. Best part, though, was we got a whole pie afterwards (to take home) for $5.99. I’m partial to key lime, so this is what we ordered. As it transpires, this is what the man behind the counter referred to as a “designer pie.” I’m not sure what the criteria are for differentiating a designer pie from, say, a regular pie (though it was more costly). Being round, circular, and in a tin, it did not show evidence of any special design. It was, however, amazing, and we feasted on it for several days. I don’t see how they make money on pies for $5.99 (including tin). The cost doesn’t lie so much with the ingredients, but rather, rent, personnel, insurance, etc. The counter clerk (who may have been an assistant manager) sold the pie to us uncomplainingly. He did, however, declaim this would be the last designer pie sold, at the sale price. I suppose they’d have to alter quite a few signs and advertisements to accomplish this policy change. Either that, or stop selling key lime pie, which would be a shame.
5. Marmalade, 4910 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91403, (818) 905-8872. A slightly more upscale version of Marie Callender’s, though with similar décor. We formerly patronized a branch in Calabasas, which now strikes me as having been slightly fancier. I’ll never forget how once we ate there, with our children. The server promised us hot, freshly baked dinner rolls, which arrived promptly. They were hot, OK, but the freshly-baked part was contradicted by the large bags of them, stacked on a shelf in the back of the kitchen. Anyway, this iteration was acceptable, though not stellar. Service was indifferent, but the meatloaf was good. Some kind of a manager-type sat across from us, obsequiously imprecating a former server, to return to her position. Either that, or he was trying to seduce her. She did not appear to relish either prospect.
6. BONUS REVIEW – Valentino’s, 3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405, (310) 829-4313. This is a very fancy, beautiful, and costly restaurant, and owner Piero Selvaggio rightly should be proud of himself. The food was superb, and the service impeccable. We brought a bottle of champagne somebody had given us, which cost about the same price as the corkage fee ($30), so I guess that was a wash. Right next to us, an extremely rude couple talked (in an incomprehensible foreign language, not that it matters), in the loudest possible voices. Evidently they were friends with Mr. Selvaggio. Their child sprawled across three chairs, playing Nintendo, with the volume turned way up. They were oblivious, and Mr. Selvaggio pretended not to notice. As we left, JG gave the valet a $10 bill, and told him to keep the change. He held it up to the light, suspiciously, as if he thought it was counterfeit. I suspect there will be no more trips to Valentino’s.