Why Did We Go?
This was not a big Destination Mother's Day Celebration. We were on our way from Alpine, CA to Tucson, AZ. It happened to be Mother's Day, which meant I got a little extra say so in where we stopped for lunch. How could I resist this 1960's diner with the sparkly white paint job. In fact the blue tiles had glittery sparkles, too!
Where is Everyone?
It was sort of a bad sign that the place wasn't packed on Mother's Day. There was nowhere else do go in Gila Bend and who wouldn't want to bring their mom here? I did have to grin when I walked inside, though. The modern spotlights were aimed at the colorful space mural and the counter stools were right out of the Jetson's cartoon show. The white dots on the shiny black floor made me feel like I was looking down into outerspace!
Inside the menu there was a write up about the history of the Space Age Restaurant and Motel, built in 1964. (postcard image from the internet) The futuristic design was created by Al Stovall, who at that time was affiliated with the newly founded Space program. He owned a plastic factory among other things and was able to use factory mateirals to create some of the unique features, like satellite replicas on the roof. Mr. Stovall passed away in the '70's, but his family is still involved in ownership. The restaurant was rebuilt after a fire in 1998, so sadly some of the truly retro features are missing.
I made sure to order a salad bar with my tuna sandwich and chili. That meant I got to go into another room with more wall art. Painted Rockets and astronauts, saucer style lamps, dramatic blue ceiling with dangling planets! This shouldn't impress me since I can go to Space Center in Houston anytime I want. But it all seemed hysterically fun, out in the middle of nowhere in Arizona!
You can tell by the cheese that my chili was not served piping hot, but they were able to give it a little zap in the microwave, when I asked. It still was only lukewarm, but I enjoyed my flying saucer plate so much that I hardly cared.
Time to Go
I'm glad we didn't drive 2 hours... or 2 days just for Mother's Day Brunch, because our dining adventure was over in about 30 minutes. Which was just fine since we needed to get on the road. I wish we'd had time too stop in the motel lobby before departing. The lobby is underneath the saucer-like structure to the left!
When We Return
Dining at an Outside Café...
Well sort of...
Canelleto's is actually a restaurant at The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Which means, when you dine at one of the hotel's "outdoor" cafes, you actually have a roof over your head.
And What a Roof!
The clouds on the ceiling made it feel like dusk, 24 hours a day. The street lamps felt like they were just lit. The sounds of singing gondoliers and sloshing water could be heard in the nearby Grand Canal. And the musicians playing flute, violin and cello created an atmosphere that felt like a summer evening in an real Italian piazza.
When Don and I dined last May, we chose to sit "outside" so we could take in the view. But when I ventured inside in search of the restroom I was amazed at the festive interior. And there was a pretty spectacular view from the upper floors!
My enthusiasm sounds like someone who has never dined in Venice, Italy. In fact, I have such good memories of the "real thing" that I really expected not to be impressed. But I do love playing pretend. And I do love a restaurant with a gimmicky theme. I'd say Canaletto's pulled it off. And I must say, I love the idea of sidewalk cafes with white tablecloths, minus the issues that come with Italian pigeons.
I took some time to study the menu artwork which showed a bustling harbor scene and Palazzo Ducale. Then I got very hungry absorbing the mouthwatering details inside the menu. It was nice enjoying a little Chianti and some warm Italian bread as we made up our minds!
Our waiter had an accent but I didn't dare ask. I'd like to just assume he was Italian, although chances are he was not. We were given just the right amount of attention and the food didn't come out too quickly. I hate feeling rushed when you're trying to enjoy your wine.
Pasta, Soup & Salad
Don's pasta with prosciutto and cream sauce was deliziososissma. Picture me giving my fingertips a quick kiss, so you know what that means. My Insalata Cesarina was surprisingly yummy with egg slices and a large sheet of parmesan! I ordered the Minestrone with crossed fingers. When I was 11 my family moved to Italy for a half year and I remember soothing my homesickness with minestrone. I've been searching since 1969 for the amazing combination of vegetables, cheese and spices, that I remember adoring. Once in a blue moon have I tasted a soup that comes close. The minestrone didn't quite make it. But that's okay. The search is part of the fun.
When in Rome, (or in Venice) I say, "Act like a tourist and pose on the bridge!" It was a good way to end our meal, before hiking back to our hotel room. We worked off a few calories as we got a bit lost, kind of like you do in the real Venezia!
Tiki Stops in Nevada & California
This past spring Don and I had a chance to make 3 retro Tiki Stops on our road trip from Texas to California and back. There wasn't much dining to be had at the first and no time for dining at the other 2, but they were all quite worthy of a write up!
1- Frankie's in Las Vegas!
Being in Vegas puts you in the retro mood. We took a 10-minute cab from our hotel to this 24-hour lounge, far from the touristy Strip. Our driver chuckled with us and took our photo before entering. (More or less wishing us luck) When we stepped back out later that evening, we got to see the bright pink neon.
When we entered through the red door, we thought our daylight eyes would adjust. They didn't. It was so dark we couldn't see the bamboo walls or mermaid on the ceiling, until viewing these "flashy" photos.
It took nerve to use the camera flash, since we seemed to be the only tourists. But we wanted to see (and remember) this awesome setting that was designed by Bamboo Ben. He and owner P. Moss, with the help of a number of tiki artists created an atmosphere of southseas exotica and modern primitivism! Frankie's Tiki Room has been hopping since it opened less than 10 years ago. I admire Moss' mission to revive the tiki glory days while preserving the name and stucco structure of an actual 1950's Vegas cocktail lounge.
Bar & Drinks
The bar was an exciting clutter of Polynesian delights. The black and white TV played beach-y film clips while retro island music played. We used our cell phones to light up the tropical menu, all priced at $9. It wasn't an easy choice since there were 77 cocktails offered at Frankie's. I chose a tasty, coconut Malakula. The menu gave it 3 skulls for "strength" instead of 5.
A space opened at the bar, so we moved to chat with Mike, the most energetic, upbeat bartender you could hope for. Being tourists, we bought some quite amazing tiki mugs designed by a local artist and Mike called our cab. There's no food to be had at Frankie's, so some of us can only linger so long. But it was well worth the cab fare to come enjoy for a while!
2- Bali Hai in San Diego Area
We discovered this tiki lounge/restaurant on Shelter Island after seeing it pictured, along with a recipe in a 1959 Ford Motor Co. Travel Cookbook. We were mighty excited to find it open and still being operated by the same family since 1955!
These Polynesian figures are shown in the cookbook illustration. No one seems to know the full history of the character nicknamed "The Goof" on the roof top. The other greeter was by the door. "Mr. Mai Tai" was less cheery, but equally odd. I'm not sure about political correctness at tiki bars, but there were many more carved tiki figures to wonder about once we stepped inside.
Grand Round Room
When we stepped inside, we were greeted by live acoustic Hawaiian music and about 100 tiki artifacts.
The shiny, massive support logs were impressive, as was the wall of glass with its spectacular view of San Diego Bay. But from 4 to 6, the action was centered around the dramatic bar under a narrow cone-shaped ceiling.
We squeezed in at the corner of bar, with light illuminating the thick stone surface. The timbers holding the cone roof held dangling lanterns and glowing puffer fish, as well as a sign with changing numbers. A man drinking a Mai Tai beside us, warned us about the strength of Bali Hai's Mai Tais. "No juice. You have to be careful." Just then, the sign changed to 2,285,362. That's a lot of Mai Tai's served at Bali Hai!
So we each ordered a Mai Tai.
I ordered mine in the special Mr. Mai Tai mug. Once again, I'm not sure about these tiki images. But I think the half closed eyes are a reminder of what you will look like if you have more than one.
Meal with a View
The dining area was beginning to fill around 6, but we had to take off. It would have been nice to have dined with that view!
Quick Chat Before Leaving
Big Brian, (as he told us to call him) was the only bartender. He was moving fast, whipping out the cocktails, but I couldn't leave without showing him the cookbook. That odd book had acted like a treasure map, luring us to our little our island paradise. Big Brian's reaction was pretty fun! He nearly hopped over the bar to get to the book. He was giddy over the "Chicken of the Gods" recipe and raced back to the kitchen (abandoning the bar) to show the chef. It was a perfect ending to our second Tiki Adventure. (I look like I had numerous Mai Tais in this photo)
3- Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach, California
The wonderful swooping roof and swordfish sign lured us right off the Highway. It was tricky getting into the parking area, which was bustling with very efficient traffic directors, who must double as security guards or bouncers. They were having their weekly Reggae Event and we made the mistake of trying to go in the VIP door. We eventually found the bamboo door in front, with sign. "Host to Diplomat and Beachcomber, Prince and Pirate."
"Don" or Ernest Gantt from Texas
Once again, I wish we had been able too stay for a meal. It would have been a slice of tropical heaven to sit beside a waterfall or Hawaiian mural and sample the Polynesian foods that became especially popular after WWII. The real tiki craze began in the '40's after soldiers returned home, craving the exotic foods they had sampled in the Pacific. I'm sure there wasn't really anything that unusual about the dishes served up then or now, with all their decorative pineapples and flowers, but I wouldn't mind trying!
We passed up the Reggae event, and headed for the cozy Dagger Bar where karaoke was in full swing at 4:30 in the afternoon.
Enjoying the Show
Once again we found ourselves relaxing with more locals than tourists. There seemed to be some karaoke regulars and a few were pretty decent. A couple made us wince, but that's all part of it. The fine fellow with gray beard, knit Rasta hat, braids and croqueted eye patch (with crocheted eye) was quite the performer. The lai-adorned woman pictured dancing along, was actually our delightful server. I had a chance to tell the "pirate" he did a nice job before we left. He said "Thanks!" instead of "Aye!" So I guess we didn't get to meet a pirate, prince or diplomat after all.
Studio City, California
Going Way Back
Now, the hotel sits beside busy Ventura Boulevard, but the 8-acre complex actually predates studio film history. In the 1880's the lodge was a rural attraction frequented by farmers and families who came to fish and turned their catches over to the chef. When Hollywood began to grow up around it, it became "Hollywood Trout Farm" and stars like Clark Gable and Bette Davis became regulars.
Odd Rumor: The old hotel from the 40's is gone, but rumor says the modern motel had a special visitor in 1968. It is said that Robert Kennedy stayed here the night before he was killed. Evidently the rumor has been a strong one, even still today. But the owner of Sportsman's Lodge was tracked down and put an end to the story. The only reason he could imagine for the rumor, was that R. Kennedy at one point, possibly talked about having the election night gathering the the Lodge. Odd and sad to think about.
The sitting area and bar near the lobby looked extremely mod and fun. We had heard the hotel gets some very interesting guests and it did seem like everyone who walked through the door was a part of something interesting.
To The Cafe
Orange and White
I didn't' get to meet any celebs, but I got to chat with our wonderful waiter from French Morocco. I showed him our cookbook with the watercolor illustration of the lodge, along with a recipe for Beef Stroganoff. He was quite amused and said they actually had that on the winter menu. He was intrigued enough by this old Ford Motor Company Travel Cookbook that he disappeared to his car to get his cell phone to take a picture.
Another People Encounter
We had no stroganoff options for lunch, but the menu looked very good. While we were checking out the food choices, we had a nice visit from a woman who was seated behind Don. She had noticed our enthusiasm for the place and seemed excited to let us know she was the designer for recent renovations. She shared a few stories and we let her know we were impressed with the new, fresh and modern concept.
I can get overly eager about a place and end up not even caring about the food. But this food was absolutely perfect. I had a Caesar salad with chicken wrap that came with sweet potato chips. Don's sandwich with incredible sauce was equally yummy. Can I tell you what it was? Actually I can't remember for the life of me 2 months later. But I remember begging for bites. So much for food review.
Mermaids in the Pool?
If we'd come another day we might have caught a performance or taken a class by "Aqualillies" a synchronized swimming group.
To view the fine Aqualillies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6i7sPwOeGd4
The Old Sportsman's Lodge
Before we departed we had to explore the old lodge area from the '40's, where you can still dine at night or book an event. The water color image is taken from the cookbook and shows the view through the window glass. Lush ponds, bridges and swans create a little urban oasis hidden in the middle of Studio City. This is where John Wayne supposedly taught his kids to fish.
A Little Distraction
The Dining Blog
This is a blog about Dining Adventures. Sometimes, I talk about food. Below, you can read how this started.
On July 4th 2011, I set a goal to try 50 culturally diverse restaurants in one year! (I knew that was possible, living in the Houston area) I spent the year pulling in friends and family to join me, on some unusual dining adventures. I met some curious people, tried some scary foods and explored places and cultures I never would have otherwise. Even though I met my goal, I learned too much to end my adventures in dining. I have continued blogging about memorable dining adventures of all kinds, near and far... and all the discoveries and funny things I've learned along the way!
Locations and types of dining adventures, are listed further down.