"Grill on the Alley" Celebrates Its 30th Anniversary!

entrance to The Grill

The famous corner on Dayton Way. All photos by Jay.

The entrance and bar of The Grill.

As a restaurant critic, the second most popular question I am always asked (after "How do you stay so thin?" To which I facetiously answer, "I don't swallow,") is what is your favorite restaurant? And invariably I answer, Spago and The Grill on the Alley. Why is this? I explain that I judge a restaurant like a triangle: ambiance, service and food. These two restaurants have always measured up brilliantly to this criteria. I have written a lot about Spago over the years, but realize that it has been a long, long time since I reviewed The Grill, and since it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary on January 31st, this is the perfect time to do so for my Huffington Post readers.

The legendary Chicken Pot Pie, the size of a hubcap.

The New York Steak, with onion rings.

Pan-fried John Dory from New Zealand is the most popular seafood dish.

Bob Spivak is a co-founder and managing partner of the chain -- and a really good guy.

THE GRILL ON THE ALLEY is at 9560 Dayton Way in Beverly Hills: (310) 276-0615. I always get a kick when I write that address, since I love the story about its origins. One day in 1983, the three original partners were wearily walking along Wilshire Boulevard after a trek around town trying to find a location for their proposed new restaurant. They saw a 3x5 for-rent sign in the window of the defunct Bentley's Steak House just past Rodeo Drive, and they went around in back to the rear entrance on the alley off Dayton to get into the space. Bob Spivak said to his partners, "If we can make our entrance here, then this is the perfect space for us. It's right next to Giorgio's and is part of the Dayton-Rodeo Drive-Beverly HiIls environment. If not, we'll keep looking." An entrance on Wilshire Boulevard was out of the question because the zoning laws prohibited cars stopping there before 7 p.m., so there's no valet parking.

Spivak haggled for six months with the Beverly Hills Planning Commission to allow them to have their main entrance in the alley, to no avail. "No restaurant in Beverly Hills can be entered through an alley," was the dictum (unlike San Francisco, which welcomes such eccentricities.) Finally Spivak went to the Building Department to examine the zoning maps and, bingo, he discovered that they had three fifths of an inch of footage on Dayton Way. "I hung a mailbox on the corner and went to the Post Office the next morning and applied for the Dayton Way address for us," he told me. "Then I sent myself a letter to that address. The moment it was delivered the Planning Commission fell into place and we were in business. "We have a brass plaque right at that corner and THE GRILL is proudly spelled out across it."

In January of 1984 The Grill opened its doors at a time when nouvelle cuisine was all the rage 'round town, and small portions of exotic food with big prices were the norm. "We wanted a traditional steak-and-chop house of the kind you find in New York and San Francisco," he added. "We visited 57 places in New York in a few days to see what they were doing, then went to Tadich's, Sams and Jack's in San Francisco to learn their secret of success. It was simple: Give the customers good plain, wholesome food at a fair value, and treat them well."

Chef Izzy Camacho and your reporter. He began here as a grill cook.

Maitre d' Pamela Gonyea has been here for twelve years.

This is the magnicent hamburger, made of meat ground twice daily.

Simple as it sounds, it's not that easy to replicate, and The Grill on the Alley today is simply one of the best, most successful restaurants in this city just because they have never deviated from that formula. I could go on and on about the celebrity customers, and anyone wandering in here for lunch will see more power-brokers, stars, celebrities of all kinds in one noontime than in most places in a year. (Yesterday at lunch, I was seated at a table next to Michael Douglas, just off his Globe victory, and Ronnie Meyer, vice chair of NBC Universal, who told me that has been a subscriber to my restaurant newsletter for 22 years.) But the celebrity quotient is just the icing on the cake, not what makes the cake so delicious. Let me comment, for instance, on the service here; it's inobtrusive but all-seeing, with professional waiters who seem to know what you're thinking before you realize it. They carry a dozen orders in their heads and I've never once been given a wrong dish. How many places can boast that? Unhappy with something you ordered. "No problem, let me get you something else sir." Yesterday, I was waited on by Patricia, who has been here 18 years. This week, at dinner, I was served by the longest-serving waiter in the room, Steve Oliva, who began 27 years ago and worked here together with his late father Ralph for 25 years. Sal Leon, the skilled bartender, started here on opening day as a busboy. Chef de Cuisine Izzy Camacho began then on the grill and became Executive Chef in 2008.

Grilled scallops are superb.

..and the double-cut Colorado lamb chops are a thing of beauty.

I must admit that I do have a problem with The Grill, but it's a nice one. I want to order everything on the menu, and for someone like me who eats out almost every night, that doesn't often happen. I usually end up ordering the same thing: a perfect Bombay dry martini ($13), a bowl of their soup special or the Chilled Gazpacho ($8), a half dozen Oysters ($18.75), the Pan-Fried Whitefish ($29.75), Creamed Spinach, ($8), one of the potato dishes ($8) and end with a rich dessert like the Strawberry Shortcake ($8.50). But when I deviate, it is for the Braised Short Ribs ($43.75), or if I'm there on a Sunday night I have the Prime Rib special ($54.75), a 26-oz. prime rib on the bone, served with creamed spinach, baked potato and Yorkshire pudding, along with Lawry's the best version of that roast beef in the city. When my sister Ann was last here, my brother Stan and I took her here for dinner and we ordered the magnificent golden-crusted Chicken Pot Pie ($23.75). She was overwhelmed and impressed, as I always am. It's a hubcap-sized monster topped with puff pastry and filled with thyme-scented cream sauce, mushrooms, onions, peas and chunks of white and dark meat chicken. I recall Merrill Shindler's famous line to me: "Never eat anything larger than your head." It doesn't apply to this dish.

At lunch I will deviate from time to time, ordering the best Corned Beef Hash ($19.75) in the world. Or if I'm feeling devilish, it will be that ingenious San Francisco dish, Joe's Special, with ground beef ($22). You've never had it? Oh, my, think of a mess of scrambled eggs, the beef (or chicken), spinach, mushrooms and onions, which tastes far better than it sounds. With all of the new steak houses in town, I suspect the best New York Steak ($45.75) in town may still be gotten here. It is prime Angus Midwestern beef aged 28 days. And they can do it my strange way: black and blue. The Double-cut Colorado Lamb Chops ($48.75) are superb, more than I can finish but love to take home for next day's lunch.

The perfect Bombay dry martini with a twist.

Their wide selection of wonderful fresh fish is grilled over oak charcoal. Waiter Steve told me that the John Dory from New Zealand ($41.75) served with grilled vegetables, is the most popular dish in the house. Spivak tells me: "There are no canned vegetables here, no microwave, no frozen food (except for ice cream) -- everything in our kitchen is the freshest and best there is. Fresh raw comestibles are brought in daily, the menu is determined by Chef Camacho, and our customers taste the results at lunch and dinner." The utterly delightful Maitre d' Pamela Gonyea (one of the only three maitre d' ever to work here) told me how the menu has been tweaked over the years to keep up with the changing tastes of the younger clientele. "For example, we added Ahi Tuna Sashimi ($18.75) to the menu, red slices of fresh fish slightly seared on the edges, and covered with a sesame seed crust. There's a Maine lobster Salad ($19.50). When Soft Shell Crabs are in season, they are a popular special." Last night I started my dinner with the Florida Stone Crab ($33 as an appetizer, $63 as a main dish.)

The Cobb Salad is made exactly as Bob Cobb invented it at the Brown Derby.

The look of the place is truly wonderful, from the front entrance where the smart staff led by General Manager Stephanie Wilson or night maître d' Ben Kruse greets you, seats you at the long mahogany bar with ceiling-high mirrors and promises your table whenever your guests arrive, to the 14 wooden booths with high backs and dark green upholstery, comfortable tables with spacious arm chairs, and globe lighting which compliments while illuminating. One thing which has always impressed me is their reservation policy: Those people with reservations get seated promptly, and those people who don't have them get seated when a table opens up. No one coming in unexpectedly -- and that goes for the biggest star! -- gets seated over a customer with a confirmed reservation. Would that more places follow this lead.

New York Cheesecake is topped with hot fudge.

I first met managing partner Bob Spivak in 1976, when he had just opened a place called Soup 'n Such on Bedford Drive. In the restaurant business since he was nine, when father Eddie ran Smokey Joe's and the downtown Redwood House, which in those days was the unofficial commissary for the Los Angeles Times, Bob had to be persuaded by his two original partners, Dick Shapiro and Mike Weinstock, to undertake The Grill, but once he did they all benefited from his years of experience. "There are no 'adjectives' on our menu," he told me. We don't say creamy mashed potatoes, or tender juicy steaks. When you say 'Grill' you're immediately understood." I'm a stickler for judging a restaurant by its bread (you'd be surprised how many well-known places have spongy tasteless bread) and The Grill's irresistible crusty double-baked, cornmeal-coated sourdough is addictive. (Torture for me to pass up on my gluten-free diet, eight months old this day.) The little touches: water glasses are freshened with lime slices. People with dark outfits get black napkins. If you are into salads, their Cobb Salad ($25.50) is exactly as the original invented by Bob Cobb at the Brown Derby. The Crab and Shrimp Louies ($29.75) are better than those in San Francisco, while the Caesar Salad ($19.75) would do justice to that of Tijuana's Caesar Cardini. There are so many other wonderful dishes here that I am salivating as I write. And although I've forsaken most desserts, when it's on the menu the Grill's famous Apple Pie, baked in an extra-deep pan and filled with cinnamon-laced apples, can make me weep. The Rice Pudding ($7) is justly famous, studded with large raisins, but how 'bout the Grill Fudge-Brownie Pie ($9), or the Hot Fudge Sundae ($9). The New York Cheesecake ($10) drizzled with hot fudge, is a nightmare to dieters.

I am not going to go into detail here about the many Daily Grills around town, there are now 21 of them...also following the dictum of fine food at a great price, only no reservations are taken there. There are seven other Grills in Dallas, San Jose, Chicago, Westlake Village, Hollywood, and Aventura Florida. Bob has been telling me about a new gastro-pub concept they have opened, Public School 612 downtown and Public School 310 in Culver City, for the younger craft beer-drinking crowd.

Where am I going for dinner tonight? You guessed it. What will I eat and drink? I am going to explore the dozen new cocktails they now have on the menu, probably a Blackthorn ($13) made with Irish whiskey. I am craving something simple, so I think it will be their Meatloaf ($19.75) with a side of Yukon Gold mashed potatoes ($7), or the Pan-Fried Whitefish ($29.75) which is slightly coated, sizzled and served with a lemon and butter sauce, with a dish of tarter sauce to spice it up. Then again -- oh, shucks, who knows, but it will be delicious.

For a short period of time, from Monday January 27th to Sunday, February 2nd. diners will be able to order a special 30th Anniversary Prix-Fixe Menu ($68 per person) which was created by John Sola, the original chef here, now V.P. of Operations. You can start with a Shrimp Cocktail or Lobster Ravioli, go onto an entrée selection between Chilean Sea Bass, Pan-Fried John Dory, Veal Chop or Filet Mignon 'Oscar' Style, ending with a dessert of Classic Rice Pudding. With this dinner, guests will get a complimentary glass of champagne and a chef's amuse bouche (surprise).

The Grill on the Alley is open seven days a week, from 11:30 to 9 p.m. on Monday, to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, to 10:30 on Friday and Saturday, and Sunday dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Did I mention that they have the best gourmet burger in captivity ($16.75), a 12-oz. grilled monster three-fourths inch high, serve with a La Brea Bakery bun slightly toasted, capped with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato? The burger meat is ground twice daily (before lunch and before dinner) from steak scraps, 20 percent beef fat added for flavor, a humongous miracle. Hmm, maybe that's what I'll have for dinner.

There's an extensive wine list including my two favorites, Justin and Laetitia, with many fairly-priced bottles on it. Their bar whiskies are all premium brands, and if you are in the mood for a dry martini (as I always am), it reminds me of the ones I got years ago at Toot's Shor in New York in the '50s, and that says it all.

In an age when perfection is a seldom-realized dream, it is wonderful to see a restaurant that mightily strives for it and seems to actually make it a reality. Here's to their fourth decade!