February 17th, 2014
Columbo’s Restaurant in Eagle Rock
By Gary Crethers
I took my girlfriend out for a belated Valentines dinner to a restaurant she picked because it had crab cakes, her favorite appetizer and because it has live Jazz music. The prices seemed reasonable and most of the reviews on Yelp seemed positive, especially the ones saying it was old school Italian, dark and Godfatheresque, with red Naugahyde booths.
We got a 9 pm reservation, just before the music was set to start, and arrived at 8:40 after a not too harrowing drive up the I-110 from Torrance. We got through downtown, onto the I-5, and the Glendale Freeway without much trouble. With “Jamzilla” constantly being talked about on the news radio station, I was expecting a freeway holocaust. Instead we were there in less than 45 minutes, nothing for an LA drive.
Parking sucked, there was no space when we arrived, but I trusted in the magic of that blue disabled tag to find us a place in reasonable walking distance, and I did, next to a vegetarian Thai place a short block away. We walked in through the bar, narrow NYC style, neighborhood bar, standing room only. We shoved our way back to the restaurant where when we told them we had a reservation at 9, they told us we had 5 parties ahead of us. Over booking, or simply previous guests not leaving was not clarified. We sat in a well lit room, next to the door of the real entrance, not the bar entrance we used, on the side of the building. People were not leaving their tables. The hostess asked us if we wanted to sit outside, my girlfriend said no, she wanted to see the band. They offered us a space in the banquet room. Again that did not have access to the band, so we nixed that option. Finally they dragged a tiny table in from outside and offered us that. We reluctantly accepted after sitting around for over half an hour playing with cell phones. I tried to parse out exactly what a friend’s email about Heidegger meant. It was a long dry tale…. And if this were through the looking glass it would have been a rewarding experience.
Seated, at our cold and tiny table, at the back of the room, with the wind striking us full on every time the door was opened, needless to say I was not a happy camper. My girlfriend was doing her best to put a positive spin on it. I asked about a booth, the red Naugahyde kind. It was closer to the mini stage where the band was setting up and more significantly it was out of the doorway breeze. When I asked about it, since we were next on the list, some guy, manager I guess, said it was going to someone who had been waiting for an hour. Well that was what we had been waiting and I was told by the hostess that we were next in line. I was going from being mildly irritated, to pissed-off and about to go to my ready-to-make-a-scene, the-revolution-is-now stage of escalation. If I went there, it would not be a pretty sight. My girlfriend began to grimace and give me the look. A St. Valentine’s Day massacre was not what she was looking forward to. We ordered our crab cakes and drinks. I got a Bombay Sapphire. She got some peach female wine thing. I told the waiter we wanted to move. I went back to the hostess and asked her about the next booth being cleared, since the maître d’ or whatever he was had seated the other couple in ‘our’ booth. My booth, the one I coveted, claimed, was due!
The band “Erica Lake and The Angry Dolphins” began to play an old blues tune, did a moderately decent version of “do right woman do right man,” an old Aretha Franklin standard, but the singers voice was distorted at the end of the room and the sound hadn’t been adjusted by a drink from mediocre to tolerable at that point. The drinks came rapidly, the crab cakes not so much. But the cakes were decent, not too wet and not too hard, sort of just right, served in a bed of arugula with balsamic vinegar and oil. My gin and tonic was beginning to work, but then we had a long wait for the waiter to take our main course order. I spied the maître d’ and told him I was not happy with being passed over. This was not the lord taking our first born child. This was a crowded Italian place with crappy service. The waiter finally took our order. I pointedly asked hostess to give us the next booth, her boss hostess or perhaps the manager, came out and apologized, and made the excuse that because it was Valentines a lot of people were lingering.
I wasn’t having it, my girlfriend was beginning to get her things together for the exit stage left routine, but then a booth opened and the waiter, and head hostess whisked us off to the magical red Naugahyde promised-land. The meals arrived just as we made ourselves comfortable in our red plastic love nest. I got the Seafood Valentino special, scallops, jumbo shrimp and lobster in linguine and some kind of pink sauce. My girlfriend ordered Four Cheese Ravioli. The meal came with a soup or salad. I ordered a salad. It was nothing special, chopped iceberg lettuce, some tomato and creamy Italian dressing. I was trying to figure out what kind of wine to have with my pink concoction and settled on a Pinot Grenache that the waiter recommended. It was light and fruity, almost a brute in its effervescence. By now my gin and tonic had hit me and as I don’t drink much anymore, I was feeling good, the music got better, and I was satisfied that my playing the squeaky wheel paid off with a better seat.
I gave most of the lobster to my girlfriend, it was not particularly special. My shrimp and scallops were great. The sauce was bland. The baby carrots were uninspired but crisp. My girlfriend had desert some kind of brownie and vanilla ice cream made out like a slice of pie. It was tasty in a gooey intense chocolaty way. The band got better as the drinks took hold, and they did a very decent version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” They were not a jazz band, but a rock and blues cover band, although they did one of their own. We stayed for both sets. And it was pleasantly entertaining. The guitarists were decent and the singer was ok as long as she didn’t overreach, she didn’t have enough range to do a really good belting blues tune.
On the walls were a series of paintings of vaguely Italian scenes, with one decent portrait of a courtesan with a big hat and another of what looked like the artist’s girlfriend. The crowd was mostly in their forties and fifties, largish, Italianish, some with teenagers, a few thirty some-things and lots of Trader Joe’s looking flowered shirts wearing Sinatra hats. This was not an especially hip crowd, but a comfortable bunch of semi drunks and their foreign exchange adopted teens. The bar, as full as it was, did not seem to be in conflict with the general ambiance. In other words the whole place was noisy. People got up and danced between the tables later in the evening and best of all we got 50% off for our inconvenience. The entire meal was less than fifty bucks. I added a tip that would have covered the full hundred bucks it would have cost and we left reasonably happy. Happy enough to have decent sex when we got home and that is saying something. So I give the place a B, at least they tried.