Sunday, January 31, 2016

Chow Time: Venice Room - STEAK Your Way!

At Monterey Park's Venice Room, it's strictly a case of "GYOS" (Grill Your Own Steak) - a novelty to which I would normally find myself entirely averse.  I mean, restaurant fondue is a definite fon-don't for me as I am morally opposed to paying for the privilege of preparing my own meal.  The charm also wears quite thin with things like shabu-shabu.  And the same holds true for pho; if I wanted to make soup, I would have simply stayed home and made soup!  While this has certainly prevented many a succulent encounter with Korean barbecue, I've learned that if you don't stand for something, then you'll fall for anything.  Principles.

Venice Room - Monterey Park, CA

Few things have the power to overcome my aversion to DIY dinners on the town like a mid-century steakhouse.  Opened in 1957, Venice Room is the true definition of a bar & grill.  In every sense, it is both a bar (about two-thirds of the facility is dedicated thusly) and a grill (literally, one communal grill in the corner that serves as the stage for steer-searing showmen of every variety).

Grill Masters enter here!!!

The dinner menu is limited at Venice Room.  So limited, in fact, that there is no menu at all.  As soon as our group of three was seated in one of the tufted, black-leather demilune booths, the lone waitress approached the table and, extending three fingers on her right hand, queried, "So...three steaks?"

"Beef, it's what's for dinner."

Sensing my hesitation, she quickly explained, "That's all we have - steak, baked potato, salad, and a roll."  My request for a dinner service sans steak was met with equal parts incredulity and pity.

I'm not going to say that non-steak eaters are considered second-class citizens,
but I could detect the sense of wonder as to why one who so staunchly abstains
from steak would come to a restaurant that specializes in nothing but. 

Keeping things ever more simple, only one cut and one size of steak is served at Venice Room.  But don't ask me what cut that is; I can't tell my T-bone from my top sirloin.

But even I could discern that this was quality meat.
I can definitely see some marbling and whatnot...

The method of food delivery is initially startling but pleasantly old-timey.  Guests are invited to help themselves (do you detect a theme here?) to the salad bar, a cafeteria-style affair complete with sneeze guard.  Moments later a platter arrives tableside that contains a foil-wrapped baked potato, a french roll the size of a football, and great slab of raw beef in wax paper.

I tend to err on the side of extreme caution when it comes to food contamination;
this little still life made me glad that I opted out but every other diner was licking
their chops in anticipation.
The steaks may be the stars of the show at Venice Room but behind every great steak is an even greater grill master.  Standing before a massive indoor barbecue, beneath the gleaming scallop trim of the copper vent hood, Ben cooked every morsel of meat to least according to Erika.  But it was Ben's first time.  His performance at the Venice Room grill was nothing compared to "Don Julio."

Ben vs. Don Julio
From grill marks to jackets there was one clear winner. 

Small but mighty, Don Julio escorted a beautiful bevy of local talent who swooned as he turned the seasoning station into a scene straight out of Cocktail.  Spinning sauce bottles and twirling tongs at the end of his nimble fingers, Don Julio skillfully choreographed the flames in a dramatic fire dance.  An obvious expert, DJ's system even included adding a bit of char to the rolls.

We might have been outclassed when it came to showy preparation but
nobody could beat us for sheer enthusiasm where eating was concerned.

All was well before the meat sweats set in...

The room was so dim that Mr. Tiny had no idea that the
house dressing could easily stand in for nacho cheese. 

We did such a thorough job in cleaning our plates that the owner (son of original owner, Joe Lombardo) came over to our table to congratulate us.  Peppered throughout our polite small talk, we were sure to include compliments on maintaining this landmark restaurant and its many fine furnishings. 

Walls not covered by murals of Venetian canals, are given the full
glamour treatment in the form of multi-color, paisley, foil wallpaper. 

The show-stopping highlight of  Venice Room's thematic decor is its black-lit backbar.
Peeking through the portico, Venetian ships rendered in neon sail serenely down the canals.

As lovely as the murals are and as much truth as there is in the adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," I am always looking at even the finest venues with a critical eye.  For simmering just beneath the jolly surface of this wacky tacky diner is a frustrated restaurateur and production designer wanting to create atmospheric and gastronomic perfection.  I just so happen to have a few ideas handy:

1. This one seems like a gimme but, in a Venetian-themed restaurant clad in canal scenes, it seems to me that the staff should be dressed as gondoliers (singing gondoliers would be a bonus).
2.  The "salad bar" - a term I use as lightly as a downy feather - could use some revamping.  It's a system that would certainly not suffer from the addition of tomatoes or a few shoestring beets.  My feelings would certainly not be hurt if somehow the "bar" took the form of a gondola...or maybe I'm just taking the theme one step too far.
3. This will make me sound gluttonous but nobody ever said, "That's too much butter!" Mathematically speaking, a pre-portioned teaspoon of butter simply isn't enough for a large baked potato and a roll as big as my head (a head that falls in the 99th percentile).

A few quibbles notwithstanding, Venice Room is practical wacky tacky perfection - particularly if you are the type who wants to grill your own steak in front of a live studio audience (I'm looking at you Don Julio).  On this point, I am certainly willing to concede to a landmark with a record of nearly 60 years of successful service.  So make your way for steak your way!

Venice Room Bar & Grill
2428 S Garfield Ave
Monterey Park


Mr. Tiny


  1. it is so fascinating that they have been open so long with such a simple "menu" . i'm not a steak eater, but i kind of love that they just have one option.
    I have never been a fan of "cook your own" venues either! there is a pancake place locally where they just bring you batter and you can add stuff to it. No way! I'm definitely too much of a penny pincher!

  2. Incredibly relieved to see the Venice Room is still the same since I moved away from L.A. in 2010. We would usually round out our visits there with a stop at Fosselman's for ice cream! Thanks for the report!

  3. This place seems like a fever dream...but a really good one. I can only guess that the clientele are mostly elderly. That is definitely the vibe it gives off. But as in most situations, I like things that are geared to that demo.