Dining in the Dark
Imagine dining at a restaurant where your entire meal -- bread, salad, entree, dessert, wine -- is served in complete darkness. The pitch-black kind, where you can't see the person you're talking to you or your hand in front of your face. It's called Dining in the Dark, a nouveau European dining trend where specially trained blind or sight-impaired waitstaff serve three-course meals in an opaque dining room. Brought to the States for the first time by German entrepreneur Ben Uphues, this highly entertaining event starts in a lighted lobby at the V-Lounge in Santa Monica, where you select your dinner and drinks from a set menu, then you're introduced to your waiter and escorted to the darkened dining room. It's a bit eerie and awkward at first (good luck if you drop your fork), but my friend and I were surprised at how quickly our other senses kicked into overdrive to make up for our loss of vision (and how loud people felt it necessary to talk to overcompensate). Honestly, I never really got the hang of slicing my steak let alone pouring wine or sharing bites. But from the laughter emanating throughout the darkened dining room, it appeared people were good natured about the awkwardness of their sightless experience. The evening isn't cheap -- $99 per person, not including gratuity and drinks -- but I guarantee you this will be a dining experience you'll never forget. For more information, log onto www.darkdining.com or call tel. 800/710-1270.
The Old Place, Up in Them Thar Hills
In a small town in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Old Place, 29983 Mulholland Hwy., Cornell (tel. 818/706-9001; www.oldplacecornell.com), is reminiscent of another time. It's no wonder, since the rustic wood building served as a post office and general store from 1908 to 1940; although it was transformed into a restaurant in 1970, it still retains an Old Western feel with its dark-wood booths, original wood bar, and dim chandeliers. The menu changes regularly, but it features hearty classic dishes that hearken back to the early 20th century -- even the warm, crusty sourdough bread is like edible history. For an appetizer, try the delicious wild mushroom skillet, which is an assortment of fresh local mushrooms served over buttery toast in a cast-iron skillet. For a main, the juicy oak-grilled Black Angus sirloin steak is excellent. The rotating list of specials might include blackened Idaho trout or oak-grilled chicken potpie. Portions are large, so come hungry. Tip: The place is tiny, so reservations are a must -- they are taken 30 days out and are only available at the following seating times: 5, 6:30, and 8:30pm. Main courses $14-$29. MC, V. Thurs-Fri 4-10pm; Sat-Sun 9am-2pm and 4-10pm. Free parking.
Hallelujah!: A Brunch Worth Singing About
Have mercy and say "Hallelujah!" for the Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues (8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; www.hob.com). For more than a decade, it's been a Sunday tradition at the HOB to feed both the body and soul with inspiring gospel performances and heaping plates of all-you-can-eat Southern home cookin'. Every week different gospel groups from around the region perform uplifting and energetic music that invariably gets the crowd on its feet and raising the roof. Seatings are every Sunday at 10am and 1pm. Tickets are $41 for adults, $33 for seniors and $19 for kids, and are available only through the HOB Sunset Strip box office; call tel. 323/848-5100.
Sea Breezes and Sunsets: Oceanview Dining in Malibu
- Beachcomber Café at Malibu Pier, 23000 Pacific Coast Hwy. (tel. 310/456-9800; www.thebeachcombercafe.com). Easily my top pick for beachside Malibu dining is this relative newcomer to the Malibu dining scene, run by Michael Jordon, a Master Sommelier and one of the top wine experts in the country (and a delight to chat with, so be sure to ask him to drop by your table to recommend wines). At the foot of the newly renovated Malibu Pier, the Beachcomber features design and decor that speak to the seaside gems of a bygone era, with lots of dark, polished woods, historic photos of surfing legends, and shiny brass trimmings. On a warm day, beg for a patio table overlooking Surfrider Beach, then immediately order the agave margarita, superb clam chowder, and tiny ahi tacos. For entrees I highly recommend the salmon filet with jasmine rice or the wild-mushroom-and-truffle mac and cheese. After your feast, digest with a leisurely stroll down the pier to watch the surfers and bask in the Malibu sun. The Beachcomber is open daily for lunch and dinner from 11am to 10pm. Validated parking for $6 is available in a lot directly south of the pier, or you can prowl for free street parking along PCH.
- Beau Rivage, 26025 Pacific Coast Hwy. (at Corral Canyon; tel. 310/456-5733; www.beaurivagerestaurant.com). Though it's my only pick located on the other side of PCH from the beach, this romantic Mediterranean restaurant (whose name means "beautiful shore") has nearly unobstructed ocean views. The baby-pink villa and its flagstone dining patio are overgrown with flowering vines. The place is prettiest at sunset; romantic lighting takes over after dark. The menu is composed of country French and Italian dishes with plenty of moderately priced pastas, many with seafood. Other main courses are more expensive; they include chicken, duck, rabbit, and lamb, all traditionally prepared. An older, nicely dressed crowd tends to dine at this special-occasion place. It's open Wednesday through Friday from 5 to 11pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 11pm.There's a large lot for free self-parking. Tip: The weekend brunch menu, which isn't limited to breakfast dishes, is a less pricey alternative to dinner.
- Duke's Malibu, 21150 Pacific Coast Hwy. (at Las Flores Canyon; tel. 310/317-0777; www.dukesmalibu.com). Lovers of Hawaii and all things Polynesian will thrive in this outpost of the Hawaiian chain. Imagine a South Pacific T.G.I. Friday's where the food is secondary to the decor, then add a rocky perch atop breaking waves, and you have this surfing-themed crowd-pleaser. It's worth a visit for the memorabilia alone -- the place is named for Hawaiian surf legend "Duke" Kahanamoku. Duke's offers up pretty good food at inflated but not outrageous prices. You'll find plenty of fresh fish prepared in the Hawaiian regional style, hearty surf and turf, a smattering of chicken and pasta dishes, and plenty of pupus to accompany Duke's Day-Glo tropical cocktails. As the name Barefoot Bar suggests, in this area, guests can remove their footwear and curl their toes in the sand. The Sunday brunch buffet is a tasty deal at $24 for adults and $12 for kids. It's open Monday through Friday from 3 to 9pm; Tuesday through Thursday for lunch from 11:30am to 3pm, dinner from 5 to 9pm; Friday for lunch from 11:30am to 3pm, dinner from 5 to 9:30pm; Saturday for lunch from 11:30am to 3pm, dinner from 4:30 to 10pm. Sunday brunch takes place from 10am to 3pm, and dinner from 4 to 9pm. Valet parking is $4.
- Gladstone's 4 Fish, 17300 Pacific Coast Hwy. (at Sunset Blvd.; tel. 310/454-3474; www.gladstones.com). Gladstone's is totally immersed in the Malibu scene. It shares a parking lot with a public beach, so the restaurant's wooden deck has a constant view of surfers, bikini-clad sunbathers, and other beachgoers. At busy times, Gladstone's even sets up picnic-style tables on the sand. Prices are moderate, and the atmosphere is casual. The menu offers several pages of fresh fish and seafood, augmented by a few salads and other meals for landlubbers -- quality has improved somewhat since local hospitality group SBE took over the space, but it's still mostly tourist food, though the large portions get the job done. Gladstone's is popular for afternoon/evening drinking and offers nearly 20 seafood appetizer platters; it's also known for its decadent chocolate dessert, the Mile High Chocolate Cake, large enough for the whole table. It's open Monday through Thursday from 11am to 9:30pm, Friday from 11am to 11pm, Saturday from 9am to 11pm, and Sunday from 9am to 10pm. Parking is $5.50.