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Keepers of the Flambé: 'Classic Dining: America's Finest Mid-Century Restaurants'

Peter Moruzzi makes your mouth water with a lavishly illustrated trip to the finest historic eateries in America. Your job: eat at them before they disappear.
Peter Moruzzi makes your mouth water with a lavishly illustrated trip to the finest historic eateries in America. Your job: eat at them before they disappear.
Gibbs Smith

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Skip lunch, ditch the sneakers, and put on your sportcoat, honey, because tonight we're celebrating at the Dal Rae supper club in Pico Rivera.

It's the home of the best relish tray in North America and is one of the last bastions of tableside dining, where the maitre d' or owner wheels a cart over and makes your Steak Diane, Caesar Salad or Cherries Jubilee in front of you.

The Dal Rae is just one of the historic eateries Peter Moruzzi profiles, and Sven Kirsten photographs lovingly, in "Classic Dining: America's Finest Mid-Century Restaurants."

Here's an excerpt:

As a type, classic American restaurants range from "continental-style" fine dining, with their softly lit wood-paneled interiors, starched tablecloths, curved booths, tuxedoed captains, and tableside service, to historic establishments retaining original character, décor, ambiance, and traditional menus. Elegant French restaurants typify the former; old-style ethnic restaurants -- Italian, Chinese, German, Spanish -- the latter. Steakhouses tend toward fine dining. Seafood restaurants run the gamut from high-end to sawdust and wood benches. Polynesian palaces, if you can find them, tend toward refined Oriental fare. All share an inviting time-machine quality.

"Fine dining" is associated with the upscale dinner houses that were popular in American cities from the 1940s through the 1970s. Classic fine dining establishments serve "continental cuisine" -- an eclectic melding of French-inspired and American dishes floridly described in elaborate menus. The key elements include white tablecloths, semicircular leather or vinyl booths of red, dark brown, or black, indirect lighting, tuxedoed captains, and tableside service. Many feature dark wood paneling reminiscent of old-world European restaurants, and have banquet rooms and the capacity for entertainment. With cocktails, dinner, dessert, and live music, fine dining is an experience that often lasts the entire evening.

Classic continental-style fine dining involves all the senses. It begins with the maître d' ushering your party past an expansive cocktail bar to a darkened dining room. There, seated in an enveloping red leather booth, a choreographed ritual unfolds with a level of formality and service appropriate to the cuisine. Dinner begins with cocktails, an iced relish tray, and bread, continues through an appetizer of Oysters Rockefeller, Caesar Salad prepared tableside, Lobster Thermidor or Steak Diane as an entrée, a fully loaded king-size Idaho russet baked potato, a bottle of red wine, and concludes with flaming Cherries Jubilee (prepared tableside, of course), coffee, and cognac.

Unlike contemporary upscale restaurants that reject buttery dishes, continental-style fine dining features rich foods with dual names: the aforementioned Lobster Thermidor and Steak Diane, Pepper Steak, Oysters Rockefeller, Dover Sole, and Bananas Foster. Fine dining restaurants are warm and enveloping. Most have their original bars, with experienced bartenders who know how to make classic cocktails such as an Old Fashioned, Sidecar, Manhattan, Whiskey Sour, or Sazerac.

Flaming dishes prepared tableside offer the patron a theatrical experience markedly different from typical restaurants, which helps justify the cost of fine dining and attracts special event celebrations where elegant service and high prices are part of the appeal.

Whether fine dining or historic, classic American restaurants from the last century deserve our attention and patronage.  Go to these places now. Don't wait. This may be your last chance to immerse yourself in a vanishing world.

(The Dal Rae is at 9023 E. Washington Blvd. Pico Rivera, CA 90660. 562-949-2444 for reservations and information. Many more classic SoCal restaurants are listed in Moruzzi's book.)