Far East Cafe, San Francisco, California – CLOSED

In San Francisco there are two Chinese restaurants that claim to be the oldest in the city and both were established in the same year: 1920. There’s the Hang Ah Tearoom, which also claims to be the first dim sum restaurant in the U.S. The food is reported to be good, but the place has zero atmosphere. The other is the Far East Cafe in the heart of Chinatown. In contrast its dining room is spectacular and apparently much of it is original.

 

Far East Cafe

Le Continental couldn’t find any detailed info about the Far East Cafe online. All we know is that it opened in 1920 with its ornate lamps, paintings and other decor coming from China.

 

Far East Cafe

The Bar

 

The Far East Cafe serves traditional Cantonese style Chinese and Chinese-American food, with a sprinkling of Szechuan dishes on the menu as well. They specialize in seafood, so that’s what you should order.

 

Far East Cafe

A unique feature are the private wood dining compartments on one side of the dining room (that matches the wood paneling on the opposite side), which the restaurant says are the last in any Chinese restaurant in the city. Sam’s Grill and Tadich Grill (both in San Francisco) also still have similar private dining compartments. Reservations are REQUIRED to sit in a private compartment (walk-ins welcome for the main dining room).

 

Far East Cafe

The restaurant was freshly painted since the last time I visited but the colors are pleasing, not garish like in so many Chinese restaurants. And check out those beautiful murals and intricate “palace” lamps! I also love the vintage linoleum floor.

 

Far East Cafe

The service was very attentive on my recent visit. The waiters wear black vests with white shirts, black slacks, and red ties.

 

Far East Cafe

 

Far East Cafe
631 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 982-3245
Open daily 11:30am-10pm

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The American, Kansas City, Missouri – CLOSED

UPDATE: The American closed to the public at the end of 2016 and is now only open for private functions.

On a recent visit to Kansas City (my first) we had cocktails in the gorgeous American Restaurant in Crown Center, designed by Warren Platner in 1974. We enjoyed the view, the design, the drinks, and the wonderful singer and pianist in the lounge, then moved on to have steak dinner in the Plaza III Steakhouse. There just wasn’t enough time in a long weekend to dine at every classic restaurant. Unfortunately, Le Continental has just learned that The American, Kansas City’s only classic fine dining restaurant, will be closing at the end of the year. Plans are to use it for “pop-ups” and special events in 2017, but there is no word on if it will stay the same or be remodeled.

 

The American Restaurant

dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Crown Center, a mixed-use redevelopment project just south of downtown, was the vision of Joyce C. Hall, Hallmark’s founder. Headquarted in Kansas City, Hallmark’s main office looked out on a little used area of land with old warehouses and parking lots. On the site Mr. Hall built a complex with office space, a shopping center, condos, two hotels (a Westin and a Sheraton), and large fountain (in the city of fountains), and an office building. In 1974 a restaurant was opened on the top floor of the office building that would be the world-class midwest dining destination south of Chicago. Joe Baum, known for the NYC restaurants Tavern on the Green, The Rainbow Room, and the Four Seasons (which just closed this month), was a consultant on the project. James Beard, “The Dean of American Cookery”, was hired to conceptualize and create the modern American menu. And Warren Platner, who had designed modern wire furniture for Knoll and a restaurant for Eero Saarinen’s 1965 CBS building, was hired to design the interiors (he would later design the Windows on the World).

 

image by Dwell.com

image by Dwell.com

 

Platner created a cathedral-like space with high ceilings decorated with fan-shaped bent wood light sculptures facing a view of the city through huge glass windows that could be shaded with wooden shutters. The furniture and carpet were done in fuschia with brass lamp fixtures for lighting and brass railings along the staircases from the foyer and bar into the lower-level dining room.

 

image by designobserver.com

image by designobserver.com

 

Today the restaurant is mostly the same except the brass light fixtures, banquettes, and fuschia color scheme are gone. It’s still a spectacular space. I was there in daylight. I imagine it’s even more striking at night.

 

The American Restaurant

the bar – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Over the years several locally famous chefs helmed the kitchen at the American including James Beard award-winning chefs Debbie Gold, Michael Smith, and Celina Tio. The menu these days, under executive chef Michael Corvino since 2013, has been updated (he is leaving the restaurant in August). They recently dropped table-side prepared dishes from the menu, which were still offered in 2010 (according to a blog post I read). The menu  consists of a prix-fixe three-course menu at $65, with a tasting menu at $110.

If you can possibly make it to Kansas City, you should visit the American before the end of the year.

 

The American
Crown Center, 200 E 25th St #400, Kansas City, MO 64108
(816) 545-8001
Open Wed-Thu 5:30pm – 10:00pm, Fri-Sat 5:30pm – 11:00pm, live music starts at 6:30 on Fridays and Saturdays

 

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Plaza III, Kansas City, Missouri – CLOSED

Recently I visited Kansas City for the first time after having wanted to go for the last several years to experience the Paris of the Plains (Kansas City has more public fountains than any city except Rome). I loved it! It was easy to get around (by car), downtown is thriving, there are beautiful homes all over the place, and some fine museums. Then there’s the food! Bar-be-que, burgers, bar-be-que, chili, bar-be-que…you get the picture. And I had to get a Kansas City steak, in a city that was once a major beef producing city. At its peak in the 1920s Kansas City’s stockyards were second only in size to Chicago’s. Following a flood in 1951 they began their decline until they closed in 1991.

 

Plaza III Steakhouse

photo by t-mizo on Flickr

 

In 1961 Paul Robinson, manager of the Golden Ox Steakhouse in Kansas City (now closed but due to reopen later this year), met Joe Gilbert, founder of the Four Winds Restaurant at the Kansas City Downtown Airport (now closed but the TWA Museum there is well worth a visit). They teamed up with Joe’s son Bill Gilbert and opened the Plaza III in 1963 in Country Club Plaza, a lovely Spanish style outdoor shopping center designed by J. C. Nichols and architect Edward Buehler Delk that opened in 1923, which is considered the first planned shopping center in the U.S.

 

Ad from 1971

Ad from 1971

 

In 1972 the Gilbert-Robinson group opened a more casual restaurant next door to the Plaza III in an old clothing store called Tom Houlihan’s, naming it Houlihan’s Old Place. That restaurant eventually expanded in the Houlihan’s chain of restaurants, numbering 79 locations by 2012. The original Houlihan’s relocated in 2003 to nearby Fairway, Kansas. Plaza III ‘s dining rooms (which started out decorated in 60s Spanish) were remodeled in 1986 in a classic steakhouse look with lots of wood, dark brown leather booths, brass lamps, and potted palms. The large downstairs space was a disco in the 70s, then a series of clubs until its remodel in 2005 for use as additional dining space for the restaurant, with live jazz on weekend nights.

 

Plaza III Steakhouse

dining room

 

The Plaza III menu is classic steakhouse all the way. First comes out a chilled relish tray. Their famous steak soup is a must. It’s a rich, thick, dark brown stew with large chunks of tender steak and vegetables. A bowl would be enough for a meal.

 

Plaza III Steakhouse

beef soup – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

 

Steaks are à la carte, USDA Prime, wet aged, and a presented tableside wrapped in plastic before you choose one. I had the famous Kansas City Strip, center cut, because “when in Rome…”, which comes in two sizes (I got the large despite having three lunches earlier. I’m not kidding.). Other options are the ribeye (two sizes), porterhouse, t-bone, filet mignon (two sizes), strip steak au poivre (brandy cream sauce), strip steak au fromage (with Roquefort), tenderloin Oscar, twin filet medallions, and prime rib in two sizes. I’m getting hungry! There are also lamb, veal, chicken, and seafood choices, and many surf & turf combinations available. Steaks come with a choice of béarnaise or au poivre sauce if desired. Sides are extra but come in two sizes, most at $5 & $9. Don’t forget to order chocolate or Grand Marnier soufflé when you order your steak so it will be ready by the time you’re ready for dessert. Both their regular and reserve wine lists have won awards.

 

Plaza III Steakhouse

I didn’t get a good photo of my steak but it looked like this – photo via the Plaza III facebook page

 

The Plaza III has had serious steakhouse competition on Country Club Plaza over the years but it has stood the test of time. In 2014 the chain steakhouse Ruth’s Chris closed on the Plaza after 17 years. I call that progress.

 

Plaza III Steakhouse
4749 Pennsylvania Ave, Kansas City, MO 64112
(816) 753-0000
Open Mon-Thu 11:00am-10:00pm, Fri-Sat 11:00am-11:00pm, Sun 5:00pm-9:00pm

 

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Pacific Dining Car, Los Angeles, California – CLOSED

Friends have often heard me complain about the limited 24 hour eatery options in the Bay Area. New York City has a few, Chicago beats NYC by a mile, but Los Angeles is tops for 24-hour dining. There are scads of 24-hour coffee shops, hamburger and hot dog stands, taco shops, ethnic eateries, and most uniquely, even some fine dining restaurants. If you can sit down to eat a high quality meal at four o’clock in the morning on white linen with real silverware and fine china, served by professional waiters in dinner jackets and ties anywhere else in the U.S. I want to know about it!

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Pacific Dining Car opened in 1921, when Los Angeles was booming during the Roaring Twenties. Fred and Grace “Lovey” Cook moved to LA from back east and decided to open a small restaurant that was like a railroad dining car. Many people think the original restaurant is in an actual railroad car but the Cooks had the car built to their specifications so it would be large enough to accommodate a lunch counter, some tables and chairs, and the kitchen. They outfitted it with wheels so it could be moved, which came in handy in 1923 because the land it was on at 7th & Westlake was sold, so the Cooks had to move the little café to 6th & Witmer at the western edge of downtown, where it still stands to this day, wheels and all.

timeline

Lovey’s pies became a quick hit in town and soon business was booming. In the 20s Fred Cook started serving high quality steaks from USDA prime aged beef, eventually installing his own curing box so he could age the beef on-site, a practice that continues today. The Cook’s survived the Depression and opened the successful Cook’s Steak House at 645 S Olive St. in 1935 (demolished). Lovey’s son-in-law Wes Idol ran the new venture. Both restaurants attracted many celebrities of the silver screen, writers, and even the notorious Mickey Cohen.

Cook's Steakhouse

Cook’s Steak House via Pinterest

Fred passed away in 1947 and Lovey continued to run PDC 7 days a week, except when the restaurant closed for three months per year during the summer, when a sign was put at the entrance reading “Too D. hot in L.A. Gone Fishing. Why the H. don’t you go, too?”. By 1960, Lovey was over 80, so her daughter Virginia, son-in-law Wes, and grandson Wes Idol II purchased the restaurant and remodeled it during the summer closure, reopening it as a “year ’round” restaurant, adding air conditioning so it could stay open during the summertime.

Pacific Dining Car 1968 menu

menu from 1968

Pacific Dining Car vintage matchbook

via Los Angeles Magazine

When Wes senior passed away in 1970, Wes II bought the restaurant from his mother Virginia, again remodeling it close to its present appearance. Wes II expanded the menu and wine list, while retaining the PDC standards of prime aged steaks. At one time there was also a Pacific Dining Car at 501 30th St in Newport Beach (as spotted on a vintage matchbook image; since demolished). I do not know when PDC started 24-hour service. This vintage matchbook shows limited dinner hours. But at some point it went 24-hours and in 1990 a PDC was opened in Santa Monica, also open 24-hours. These days, Wes Idol III runs PDC, amazingly owned by the same family for 95 years!

Pacific Dining Car original dining room

original dining room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Pacific Dining Car has many dining rooms, but my favorite is the original dining car, which has been remodeled over the years to its present Victorian dining car look of varnished wood, plush high-back booths, tables with green crushed velvet chairs, windows with tasselled valances, brass luggage racks holding vintage suitcases, and classic lamps.

Past the wine room you enter the bar (with TV) and the adjacent Club Car dining room, which is decorated with many historic photos; worth a peek if you aren’t dining there.

Pacific Dining Car dining room

Club Car next to the bar – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

At the other side of the original dining car, just past the kitchen, is the Northern Pacific Room, in a Craftsman style with green walls and ceiling, lots of wood, blue crushed velvet chairs, and chandeliers made from antlers. A very interesting room that was used as a film set. Also, there is the Astor Room, the Huntington Room, and the Wine Room. Wow! More photos of the the various dining rooms.

antler chandelier in Northern Pacific Room, Pacific Dining Car

antler chandelier in Northern Pacific Room – photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Since this is primarily a steakhouse all the menus feature steaks from prime aged corn-fed beef , but there are many other meat, seafood, and vegetable options. Breakfast is served 24 hours a day. I love their blueberry pancakes, top sirloin steak ‘n eggs, and lyonnaise potatoes. Or you could go New Orleans style and get eggs Sardou, artichoke bottoms over creamed spinach, topped with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce.

Pacific Dining Car steak 'n eggs

top sirloin steak ‘n eggs with lyonnaise potatoes -photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

Lunch is served from 11am to 4pm and features salads, steaks, seafood, sandwiches, and other entrees. Afternoon tea is offered daily from 3pm to 5:30pm. The dinner menu is served 24-hours a day and offers an extensive array of steak and seafood entrees and combinations. Make no mistake, PDC is an expensive restaurant. Their famous cowboy steak, a bone-in ribeye, will set you back almost $80 à la carte and their famous baseball steak, a thick top sirloin will cost you almost $50 on the dinner menu. However you can go after 11:00pm and save a lot. Their late night menu served from 11pm to 6am offers many of their popular selections at reduced prices and some include sides while their regular dinner menu counterparts may not.

Pacific Dining Car rib steak

Cowboy Steak – via beefaficionado.blogspot.com

Note on their steaks: the steaks are well seasoned and cooked over charcoal with a good dark crust (as you can see above). If you don’t like your steak that well seared you should ask if they can cook it with less of a dark crust. Also, after reading a lot of online reviews complaining about the Pacific Dining Car’s baseball cut being “dry”, I have this to say: top sirloin is a beefy but relatively lean cut with a somewhat chewy texture. I love a good top sirloin for a steak-on-a-budget. But it’s not as well marbled as say a ribeye or strip steak so it’s not as juicy and it doesn’t have the melt-in-your-mouth feel of more fatty cuts. So don’t order the baseball steak if a chewy, beefy steak doesn’t appeal to you. I found my aged top sirloin served with eggs to be very flavorful!

Pacific Dining Car

photo by Dean Curtis, 2016

The service is excellent: genteel, old fashioned, refined. Which makes the entire experience from a simpler, less hectic time. The crisp white linens, the real polished silverware and the fine china remind me of dining in a railroad dining car during the streamlined train era before Amtrak (luckily I was able to experience it in the 1970s on board the Denver and Rio Grande Western’s Zephyr, a remnant of the California Zephyr that held on until 1983). There is no music playing at the restaurant; just the sound of low conversation and polite dining. If you go late at night please don’t arrive drunk and make a lot of noise.

Sure, Pacific Dining Car is pricey, but it’s also priceless.

James Ellroy at Pacific Dining Car

James Ellroy in the Astor Room at Pacific Dining Car – via the Hollywood Reporter

James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential and other books, is a huge fan of Pacific Dining Car!

Pacific Dining Car
1310 W 6th St, Los Angeles, CA 90017
(213) 483-6000
2700 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90403
(310) 453-4000
Open 24 hours with breakfast and dinner menus; lunch 11am-4pm; tea 3pm-5:30pm; late night menu 11pm-6am – at both locations

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Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno, California – CLOSED

 

When I was a young man running around San Diego on my Lambretta scooter in the 1980s I loved to eat at the Chicken Pie Shop in Hillcrest, especially during cold winter days (OK, it never got very cold in San Diego, but we’re cold wimps in California). It was the ultimate homemade comfort food, served in a time machine café that first opened in 1938 at 5th and B downtown and later moved to 5th and Robinson in Hillcrest (first on the southeast corner, moving to the northeast corner in 1965). The chicken pot pie dinner was tasty, cheap, and very filling (lunch there was my meal for the day). In 1990 the shop was purchased and moved to North Park. It’s not a time warp anymore in atmosphere but the menu is still old-fashioned and the food is good, hearty, and cheap. The friendly, veteran staff stayed with the restaurant when it moved.

 

Storefront of Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

photo by mears on Flickr

 

In the cool Tower District of Fresno is an unrelated Chicken Pie Shop (aka Grandmarie’s) that is thankfully still frozen in time. In 1956 Mary Ross (“Grandmarie”) and her husband opened the original Chicken Pie Shop on Olive Street in Fresno to serve chicken pies from her own recipe. In 1966 it moved into a space on the same block previously occupied by Byde’s Hardware (the old location is now a parking lot next door). Mary Ross’ grandson Gary Ross is the current owner, so this year the restaurant has been owned by the same family for 60 years!

 

Dining room of Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

 

The dining room is probably the same as it was when it opened: two-tone green tufted-naugahyde booths, wood-grain Formica tables, original linoleum floors (a rarity these days!), chrome coat racks, and TWO horseshoe-shaped lunch counters in chartreuse Formica with bright-green swivel chairs. And there are large, colorful, rooster wall hangings!

 

lunch counter of Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

one of two lunch counters – photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

 

rooster wall hanging in Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

rooster wall hanging in Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

photo by Dean Curtis, 201

 

 

 

 

 

 

rooster wall hanging in Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The baked chicken pies are excellent: a flaky pastry crust filled with chicken chunks and served with mashed potatoes, a golden gravy made from scratch from the restaurant’s chicken stock, biscuits, and cole slaw, all house made. Other options for lunch or dinner are chicken & noodles, fried chicken livers, honey ham steak, country fried steak ‘n gravy, and pot roast. An assortment of sandwiches, salads, and soups are available, including their homemade chicken barley soup served with a mini loaf of homemade bread. They also serve breakfast. An off-menu special is the berrock, a pasty-like meat pie of Volga-German (Germans from Russia) origin.

 

berrock at Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

berrock on vintage plate – photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

 

chicken pie with mashed potatoes, gravy, cole slaw, and vegetables - photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

chicken pie with mashed potatoes, gravy, cole slaw, and vegetables – photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

 

As you can see, they still use vintage china. The good diner-style coffee is served in Tepco mugs, perfect with one of their house made deserts, such as the apple crumble. I had rice pudding and can say without reservations that it was THE BEST rice pudding I’ve ever had, hands down! And I love rice pudding so I’ve tried it all over the country.

 

rice pudding at Chicken Pie Shop, Fresno

rice pudding – photo by Dean Curtis, 2011

 

After your hearty meal why not walk it off around the Tower District, which is a hip area of independent shops, restaurants, nightlife, and a historic theater.

 

(Grandmarie’s) Chicken Pie Shop (no web site)
861 E Olive Ave, Fresno, CA 93728
(559) 237-5042
Open Mon-Fri 7:00am – 7:00pm, Sat 8:00am – 6:00pm (possibly 2:00pm), Sun 8:00am – 2:00pm

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