Recently, the famously scandalous cover of the New York Post, a hotbed of lunatic headlines and crazed graphics, dedicated more than half of its real estate to a photo of a face-masked server carrying a pair of tasty dishes, next to the words “Gardens of Eatin’: NYC’s Loveliest Alfresco Options.” The story that followed was a paean to the numerous New York eateries that have opened outdoor dining options on the street in front of their locales — allowing locals to eat their pasta as cabs and trucks rumble by.
Here in SoCal, numerous culinary streets have a better idea. They’ve removed street parking — replaced it with barriers both concrete and plastic, painted and unpainted — and turned the spaces into lively, exciting dining destinations, with customers strolling in masks, and servers in both masks and, often, plastic shields, with rubber gloves.
We’ve returned to dining, after four months of forced hibernation. Takeout is still an essential part of our existence. But being able to get out there and eat in the open air is doing wonders for our hearts and souls — and our sense that we live here, because our outdoor dining season lasts all year long. When they shovel snow in New York, we’ll be eating sushi. Life could be worse.
And they’re doing it very well in Redondo Beach, on Catalina Avenue in Riviera Village, where the crowds are considerable – and the options are many. One of the biggest crowds during a recent visit was found at The Rockefeller (1707 S. Catalina Ave., Redondo Beach; 424-350-7862Call via Mitel , www.eatrockefeller.com), the southernmost branch of The Rockefeller trio of food and drink hot spots.
What do I like? Well, those who know me, know if there’s a ceviche on the menu, I’m genetically programmed to order it. And there’s a good one at The Rock. It’s made with red snapper, rather than the more common (and somewhat firmer) ahi, marinated in a snappy citrus mix, topped with what the menu calls a “vegetable confetti of pineapple, jicama, red bell pepper, cucumber, green scallion,” which is okay — though I don’t really like anything to distract from the pleasure of the fish.
There’s a sweet Thai chili sauce as well, and guacamole. The guac is good to have, it always is. The chili sauce is also unnecessary. But then, when it comes to ceviche, I’m annoyingly purist. That’s me. Not necessarily you.
If I’m into my second Pizza Port Chronic Ale, or Konig Ludwig Hefeweizen, I might well feel the need for a dish called “Rockefeller Mess” (two words rarely found together!). It’s a pile of fries, Allagash queso (beer, a trio of cheese, chorizo, garlic and such), pickled Fresno chili and red onions, pico de gallo salsa, guac and cotija cheese.
For $5 more, you can toss in some braised short rib. In for a penny, in for a pound as they say.
Should you want to stay a tad less caloric, the ahi wonton salad is a fine choice, along with the “healthy steak salad” (is it “healthy” because it’s made with kale?), the sundry tacos, and the very nice pan-roasted chicken — half a Mary’s chicken, flavored with preserved lemon.
Perhaps even busier was the nearby HT Grill (1701 S. Catalina Ave., Redondo Beach; 310-791-4849, www.htgrill.com), a more sophisticated sibling of the nearby Hennessey’s Tavern, where the options for outdoor seating are many, both in front, on the side, and in a garden area as well. And where the menu, once you’ve worked your way through the many drink options (and we all need a drink these days!), is substantial and soothing.
Myself, I prefer the braised short ribs — gedempte fleisch that drops from the bone with a glance — served with mashed spuds ribboned with yellowish-orange Vermont cheddar. Nice.
They make a very fine wine roast chicken at HT Grill — a classic among classics, coated with our old friend Herbs de Provence, with garlic mashed potatoes on the side. Cut into the skin, and it crackles; juices run from the cut, perfuming the air about the bird; nothing foul about this fowl.
You can, if the need moves you, order a grilled bone-in ribeye, or a gorgonzola-crusted prime flat iron steak. But I’m a sucker for meatloaf, and they do a swell one at HT. It’s an exercise in layers of flavor, which reveal themselves with every bite — from the herbaceous herbs of the crust, to the spicy center with lots of juice. As ever, I prefer my meatloaf cold; it tasted good in the restaurant, but it tasted even better the next day when I had it for lunch. (Okay, breakfast…I was out of pizza, so I had meatloaf instead.)
They make a fine cioppino, a bubbling bowl full of crab, mussels, shrimp, fish and a very pungent broth (that might taste better the next day, but I ate it all, so who knows?). The rack of New Zealand lamb is coated with a proper Pommery mustard crust — you can feel the grains popping with every bite. And what’s not to love about a tri-tip slathered with Cajun spices? Or, for that, matter, the fettuccine called “The” Fettuccine — pasta, smoked chicken, artichoke hearts and a sauce of cream and parmesan.
And where else? There’s wonderful Coastal Spanish/Mediterranean fusion at Gabi James (1810 S. Catalina Ave., Redondo Beach; 310-540-4884, www.gabijamesla.com), hand-crafted pizzas at Locale 90 (1718 S. Catalina Ave., Redondo Beach; 310-540-9190, www.locale90.com), and so much more.
But for me, more than anything — more than even the cooling ocean breezes, and unexpectedly easy (meter) parking on the nearby streets — there’s being out and about with people. These are folks who, like bears emerging from a long sleep, are hungry, thirsty and ready for some fun. Catalina Avenue may be the best outdoor dining street in SoCal. The New York Post doesn’t how good our life is!
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email email@example.com.