Kage Baker didn’t like to be surprised by restaurants. She didn’t like to be surprised by anything, actually, but especially not where she went to eat. She was therefore always cautious about trying new places. Novelty in dining was not her thing. She liked an experience to be just as it was the time before, so she knew what to expect and could savour everything in advance.
Historic restaurants are invaluable for this, and nothing made her happier than to discover someplace was doing business just as it had when she was a child. When the Golden Lantern closed in Pismo Beach – that being the chosen purveyor of Chinese food from her childhood – Kage was in despair. At least, until we watched the cleanup crew carry out a barrel of MSG that was as tall as I am … then she stopped complaining, which finally enabled us to find Mei’s, the best Chinese restaurant in the Five Cities, and we could eat Chinese takeout again.
Until the threat of chemical warfare, though, Kage was adamantly opposed to trying anywhere new. She’d rather have lived without egg fu yung than try a new chef.
For most of her life, she had longed to eat at the venerable Brambles, in Cambria; we’d been driving by it for years before we got it together to actually go and eat there. It was old, elegant, dark; leather banquets and tiny tables looking out on a tangled green hillside, a menu from the 1920’s, diverse martinis … just Kage’s kind of place. When it suddenly closed a few years on, she was disconsolate; she insisted on driving past it at every opportunity, yearning at it to re-open. And you know what? It did. Against all odds, the place passed to a cousin of the original owner and it re-opened. Just in time for Kage to celebrate her last birthday there, in fact.
The bar at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, which houses a mural of Old King Cole by Maxfield Parrish. Cliff House and Alioto’s, on opposite ends of San Francisco. The Big Yellow House in Summerland (which is extremely haunted). If a restaurant had been standing at least three generations and served alcohol, Kage was a natural patron.
Here in Los Angeles, it was places like the Hollywood Roosevelt – where we actually stayed a few years back, while researching Rude Mechanicals; Kage ecstatically ate grilled fois gras and drank Bombay Sapphire Gin and wrote in a room right down the hall from where Montgomery Clift famously plays a ghostly trumpet in the halls. (But not for us, sigh.) It was places like Clifton’s Cafeteria, which is an ancient delirium filled with fake waterfalls and palm trees. Or Musso and Frank’s Grill, where the menu and the waiters are all old enough to have served Dashiell Hammet. Or the Tam O’Shanter, where you can get ale by the half-yard and the otherwise-elegant tables all feature Laurie’s Season Salt in labelled bottles …
Or Damon’s Steakhouse in Glendale. Damon’s is a dark, relaxed place full of tikis and paintings of vahines on black velvet, though there is nothing especially tropical on the menu . But the house salad is unique and irreproducible, the steaks are fantastic – especially the tenderloin; the decoration is – well, it’s sort of upper-class Beach Hut, is what it is. There’s an outrigger hanging from the ceiling. There are bamboo and tapa mats and monkeys everywhere. There’s an enormous salt-water aquarium at one end, and Kage always wandered over to gaze happily into it when we ate there.
I’ve been eating there since I was still in footie pajamas. Since we reached our majority, it’s been me and Kage – the bar could make the Planter’s Punch and Mai-tais she liked, and it is my very favourite steakhouse in all the world (and I have had steak in Kansas City, kids).
I’m going there tonight, on this hot windy Spring evening in Los Angeles, to dine with Anne and remember our sister. Anne will relax her dietary standards enough to eat a steak, and I will tempt Fate with a single cocktail – one evening off my heart meds won’t kill me, and I certainly cannot toast Kage with a metropolol tablet.
So I’ll drink the kind of musical comedy drink she preferred, and I’ll eat her favourite steak in one of the grand old restaurants she loved. And then … I’ll come home and write.