Where: 9641 W. Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills, 90209. Cross Street: Beverly Drive
When: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; dining room open 7 a.m. to 1:30 a.m., Monday through Sunday
What to Try: Crab cake, McCarthy chopped salad, roasted Arctic char
Noise Level: Moderate
Meeting Room: Yes
Parking: Valet, $6
Price Range: Appetizers, $12-$34; entrees, $21-$38
Reservations: (310) 276-2251
''Contemporary" is a word thrown around quite a bit when describing California's distinct cuisine or L.A.'s restaurant scene for that matter a pronouncement relying heavily on the logic that "newer" is always "better." However, anyone who has had the stereotypical experience of sitting in a cold, sterile dining room facing a minuscule portion of high-concept, low-flavor fare can argue the virtues of tradition and consistency. That sentiment has kept the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge a favorite for nearly a century, catering to an increasingly diverse crowd that counts Hollywood heavy-hitters and the ladies who lunch as devotees to this bastion of class and luxury.
Built in 1912, the hotel, then residing in a decidedly more rural incarnation of Beverly Hills, became a respite for the Hollywood crowd. Will Rogers and studio founder Darryl Zanuck made a habit of retiring to the restaurant after polo matches, leading to the restaurant's iconic name. Though polo has less relevance in Los Angeles these days, the Polo Lounge has insinuated itself into the culture through countless appearances in film and on TV.
Often called "the Pink Palace," the hotel is a reminder of the city's history. The arrival is impressive: At the end of the short drive is the main structure, painted salmon pink with dark green accents, a color scheme that instantly telegraphs affluence and leisure. The motif reappears throughout our brief jaunt to the Polo Lounge where a piano player is pumping out standards on a grand. The restaurant is famous for its gardens and bougainvillea-filled patio, but we opt for a window seat in the main room on this chilly day, leaving the desirable tables outside to the more hearty patrons.
The room is full of business diners and a smattering of more casually dressed patrons, but the lion's share of the clientele are ladies of a certain age, and judging by the menu, they are the target audience. With offerings such as beef stroganoff and osetra caviar, this is not a place tailored for youth, though many may appreciate its lure. We are surprised to see a younger fellow ordering the steak tartare at an adjacent table, the server adding a multitude of ingredients according to his tastes. We are struck by the decorum and intensity of the waiter as he focuses on the task at hand.
We start off with the Dungeness crab cake. Though the mass of crab meat is standard, the cauliflower veloute a traditional French cream-based sauce is delectable and the toasted pine nuts add another dimension flavor- and texturewise. The pickled vegetable salad nicely keeps the dish from feeling too heavy. But the seafood cocktail is disappointing. Exorbitantly priced for a what is essentially four shot glasses of shrimp, crab, scallop, and lobster, each is in turn doused by cocktail sauce, mustard aioli, green goddess dressing, and Marie Rose sauce (a fancy name for French dressing). We were hoping to share the dish, but most of it remains uneaten after a few attempts to pick around the globs of superfluous condiments.
The menu features a section of "Polo favorites" that do not leave the rotating lineup. They are classics such as the famous tortilla soup, but we select the McCarthy salad. Named for a former regular, the chopped salad has been on the menu since 1948. A toss of chicken, cheddar, beets, crispy bacon, tomato and hard-boiled egg, this variation on the Cobb salad is tossed tableside in a large bowl tipped dramatically toward the diner. Though I am not a fan of the balsamic vinaigrette, the appeal of this beloved concoction is unquestionable.
After the salad, which is perhaps the high point of the meal, we venture into the main courses. Though the turkey pot pie from the "favorites" menu is described as traditional, it is anything but. What arrives is a head-scratching bowl of what is essentially creamed turkey soup with a puff pastry floating atop. Difficult to eat and not what we are expecting, the only parts we finish are the truffle-glazed carrots, green beans and pearl onions that line the rim. Sometimes innovation isn't all it's cracked up to be. The roasted Arctic char is much better, though its pairing of chervil gnocchi and crab hollandaise is a little suspect. We try the braised cardoons (a close relative of artichokes) and we conclude that there is just too much going on with the dish.
The desserts are exactly what one would expect: refined and staid with the unwavering constancy that has become a hallmark of this institution. The chocolate mousse on special is dense and bittersweet, plated beautifully with a smear of raspberry compote. The warm apple friand a light tea cake popular in Australia is mostly forgettable save for the long, thin stick of mint candy used as a garnish and the scoop of refreshing vanilla yogurt sorbet. It may not be your cup of tea, but the assured quality with which it is presented leaves no question that every aspect of the offering is fully considered.
The Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge has cornered the market for sentimental classicism. With its idyllic setting and truly anachronistic staff, the Polo Loung trades on the notions of gentility and grace. Though the food is not destined to be universally loved, the kitchen's sense of identity and conviction is undeniable and certainly admirable. Indeed, the staff is well-acquainted with the crowd they are playing to, and will continue to play to for decades to come.
Reviewer Lindsey Styrwoll can be reached at L_Styrwoll@yahoo.com.
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