As my friends and I walk toward the entrance of the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills — yes, it really is off an alley — two couples push open the door, still deep in conversation. They're chatting about the grandchildren, about the last vacation they took together, about the meal they just shared. They're not tourists for sure, but regulars. For anybody who has a thing for classic American chophouses, the Grill on the Alley is a habit.
I've introduced countless friends to the Grill over the years and never found one who didn't immediately adopt the place into his or her canon of favorite L.A. restaurants. Its warm, lively atmosphere, terrific service and impeccably executed classic chophouse fare has that effect.
Spencer Tracy knocking back drinks at the bar or Lauren Bacall and Bogey, fedora plopped on one of the coat hooks, digging into a juicy New York steak.
The Grill feels like it's been serving martinis and steaks forever — and maybe it has, by L.A. standards. There's another branch at the Hollywood & Highland Center, others in San Jose and Washington, D.C., plus a passel of offspring that make up the less-expensive Daily Grill chain. But the Beverly Hills locale is the original — and for me, the only.
One night while we wait for a booth to be free, I notice a man in his 80s having dinner at the bar. Everybody seems to know him. He's obviously been coming to the Grill for years, maybe his wife has died, and here he is, happily scarfing down dinner, doted on by the waiters and the maitre d', having a fine old time. We should all be so lucky in our older years.
Our booth is ready and we happily claim it, hanging jackets and wraps on the hook at the end. The brass lamps with green glass shades cast a warm light over the tabletop. And instead of everything lost in the dark as it is at so many places, here you notice the heavy salt and pepper shakers, the cruet of olive oil and the simple flatware.
The service at the Grill is as good as it gets in L.A. — always has been and probably always will be. Why? Because nobody here, to my knowledge, is an actor or writer putting in time until the big break. These are professional waiters and many of them have been at their posts for years.
The service is old school — polite, efficient, no names exchanged. You bring a wine, the waiter doesn't flinch but examines the label with polite curiosity. Anything you want, you get. A half order of crab Louie? It could possibly be arranged. And it is. The pacing of the meal is right on the mark, and if on the rare occasion your steak is over- or underdone, no problem. The kitchen will cook you another.
I love the way the minute you sit down, someone is there to take your drink order and hand you the menu printed in green ink on stiff ivory paper. The cocktail list runs along the left, the wine list along the right, with the dishes in two columns down the middle. It's unpretentious and practical.
While you're getting settled in, before you order, someone will bring a plate of roasted peppers and sweet red onions, along with a quarter loaf of thick-crusted bread and butter decorated with a leaf of watercress. The peppers — green and red — are cut in strips, the onions slivered. And the taste is so elemental, so delicious, I can't stop myself from finishing the plate.
The menu encompasses so many things, you could probably eat at the grill for a couple of weeks without repeating a dish.
I like to start with a classic shrimp cocktail. Here, the shrimp are not at all puny but big and sweet, draped over the side of a stainless-steel footed bowl filled with ice and served with a definitive cocktail sauce punched up with horseradish.
Caesar salad is always excellent, made with the whole head of romaine, not just the hearts, and tossed in a pungent, garlicky dressing with croutons and black pepper. The Grill Cobb salad is just about perfect, too. It includes all the standard elements — the chicken, the blue cheese, the bacon — lightly dressed to create a lively salad, instead of the usual overly rich one.
When I want to treat myself, I order a Dungeness crab Louie from the main course salad list and get the Thousand Island dressing on the side. The crab is always fresh and chilled, and mostly lump crab meat. It's something to savor slowly but is large enough to share. Sometimes half a cracked Dungeness crab will be on the menu, and if it is, pounce. It's served on a bed of ice with a small crock of lemony mayonnaise. On a recent visit, as the conversation swirled around me, I happily went at it with my crab crackers and a tiny fork to ferret out every bit of crabmeat. For me, the chilled fresh crab with a slight briny taste from the sea was a feast.
In season, the waiter may propose soft-shell crab in lemon butter sauce as a special, one for an appetizer, two for a main course. The kitchen really knows how to fry, so these are a pale gold and not a bit greasy, with that bright lemon butter sauce to pick up the contrast between the tender, sweet crab meat and the crisp exterior.
An order of fried potatoes and onions is obligatory. The skinny fries and threads of onion are piled high on the plate, irresistible. Or order some shoestring potatoes for the table. Crispy? asks the waiter. Yes, crispy. And they really are. We can't stay away from them. The huge pile of fries looks insurmountable, but we manage to polish off most of it over the course of a meal.
Among the main courses, the best are the classic grill items. High at the top of the menu, there's a fine prime filet on the bone, almost 2 inches thick and well-aged. Double lamb chops are wonderfully tender and taste, as they should, like lamb, and not some anonymous meat. Veal chop, though not the largest I've ever encountered, is good quality meat, pink and juicy. Calf's liver with onion and bacon is outstanding. The liver is pink and juicy, and it comes with lots of crisp smoky bacon. The kitchen also does a good job with classics such as cold poached salmon, steak tartare and pan-fried Dover sole. This is not complicated cooking but is informed by top-notch products and reliable execution. Not many L.A. restaurants are as consistent as the Grill.
One night I watch the woman at the next table cutting up everybody's meat, exchanging this piece of steak for that one, playing mama to her two male friends. This one is a little more done, she says, to her friend or husband. It's hilarious, the way she's moving the food around, dishing up vegetables as if she were at home. She looks up, sees me watching, shrugs and then tells me, "Some are rarer than others," laughing.