Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Don't got no brains anyhow!"

It's L.A. history, and it's as goofy and Hollywood-tinged as only L.A. history can be. The restaurant now called Billingsley's Steak House has been in this tiny wedge of property on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles since 1946, when restaurateur Glenn Billingsley opened the place as the Golden Bull.

Glenn's wife, Barbara, was an actress working in TV. She played June Cleaver, the mom in "Leave it to Beaver," and with her pearls and high heels cemented the image of a '50s sitcom mom in the kitchen.

She was an L.A. native, moving to New York to work in the theatre, but returning home to work for MGM and marry her restaurateur husband - although they divorced soon after opening the restaurant. In 1974, Glenn sold the West L.A. place to their sons, Glenn Jr and Drew, who remodeled it and changed its name to Billingsley's.


Billingsley's Steak House is a place you'd pass without thinking about it. I would never have known about it myself if I hadn't been introduced to it in the late 1990s by a co-worker when I worked at the Shubert Theatre in Century City, running a spotlight for the show "Ragtime."

The dinner break between the Saturday matinee and evening shows was timed perfectly for the "Early Bird Special" at Billingsleys. Mark and I spent quite a few Saturdays here, in a curved Naugahyde booth, eating chicken parmesan or yankee pot roast or prime rib - but mostly we ate steak; rib-eye or small filet with a baked potato and steamed broccoli. It was served with an iceberg lettuce salad with green goddess dressing, in a bowl so cold from the fridge condensation formed on its thick white rim.

It's been over fifteen years now since those dinners with Mark, but I remembered them as I recently drove past Billingsley's, bumping over the rough patched asphalt of Pico Boulevard just west of the 405 freeway, in the shadow of  construction for the new Expo-Line light rail extension. A block away, the seedy, tired-looking strip club Fantasy Island raises its faded strobe-lit cupola, and a scaffolding of wooden concrete forms and rebar arches overhead to bisect the restaurant's parking lot as the tracks grow ever closer to Santa Monica.

I convinced [The Man I Love] to meet me there for a drink one night after work. That night, I arrived before he did.

Billingsley's has a full bar, and quite an old-school bar atmosphere. I never took a drink here when I came here with Mark - because we had to go back to work, we sipped Cokes and iced-teas with our Early Bird dinners. But this time, after a moment to adjust my eyes to the deep inner gloom, I sat at the bar. A couple of guys nursed beers and watched the TV; I sat on the other side of a service area, where six stools wrapped around the L-shaped bar. 

The decor is a throwback to the '70s evocation of Gay Nineties. Tiffany-style lampshades hang low over curved, channel-upholstered red booths. Signs and mottoes in old-fashioned print hang on the wall, along with murky impressionist prints of reclining, veiled nudes. A tropical fish-tank bubbling with cerulean light divides the bar area from the dining booths.

The bartender leisurely counted bills into his till and then came over to take my order for a gin gimlet. It was perfect, the fragrant gin balanced with the sweet yet chemical taste of Rose's Lime Juice; a fresh wedge of lime at the rim.

As I sipped, a couple arrived and sat around the bend from me, greeting the bartender like old friends. He drew their drinks before they ordered, and slid a plastic bowl of Goldfish crackers between them, then, almost as an after-thought, placed a half-full bowl in front of me.

You could feel the place come to life, people arriving and taking their seats in the dining room; waitresses hustled up to the service bar with orders.  More people filed into the bar, funneling through the narrow space, so I didn't think much at first when someone seemed to bump into me as she brushed past.

Then, someone else brushed past me again harder this time, almost like a shove. I looked around, puzzled and still not understanding, but then [The Man I Love] came through the door and I stood to kiss his cheek. Before we could sit again, the bartender quietly suggested we move to the other end, "so some folks can sit down," and I realized that I had committed the ultimate sin of taking a regular's seat.

Pushy bitchez
Once territorial rights were sorted out, the atmosphere thawed. [The Man I Love] received an extra onion for his gibson. The bowl of Goldfish was topped up. A cheerful blonde waitress named Kim turned her smile on, and asked if we planned to have dinner. She's been working here for eighteen years, she said, and invited us to take a booth in her section.

The menu, as a nod to the clientele's demographic, is printed in an extra-large font easy on elderly eyes. There's a daily special, but everyone goes for the Early Bird.

The Early Bird steak dinner at Billingsley's comes with salad or soup, your choice of potato or rice, a vegetable, their famous garlic cheese bread, dessert and coffee, all for $18.95 - cheaper than an ala carte pasta entree less than a mile away in Brentwood. The steak was thin and tough, though cooked perfectly to order, and the potato was chalky, despite a lavish scoop of sour cream with scallions.

Even so, the tables filled up with people, happily munching the garlic cheese bread, puffy, limp white bread covered with a salty grit of powdered cheese. Across from us, a family - mom, dad and grown daughter visiting from out of town - sat in the same booth they may have nestled in for decades. Beyond them, an elderly couple touched hands across the formica table top for a moment.

Behind the glowing tank where a yellow fish glided through the submerged castle and pulsed its open mouth, I could hear the barflies cackling at some old joke that only they could get, after its umpteenth telling. We finished our glasses of red wine and took the leftover steak home for the dog.

If you're a creature of habit looking for value and you don't want any surprises, Billingsley's is a place to go. It's steeped in a kind of mournful, fading nostalgia, carefully guarded and cherished by those who return to it. Anyone is welcome at Billingsley's -  as long as you don't sit in someone else's place.

Parking lot in the shadow of the Expo Line
Here's Barbara Billingsley in a cameo role in the 1980 movie "Airplane" that spoofs on her image as a wholesome sit-com mom.

Barbara Billingsley died in Los Angeles, on October 16, 2010 at age 94. I bet no one ever tried to sit in her regular place.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

That fish is saying: "Don't let these people push you around, Aunt Snow!"

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

I remember her in "Airplane!"
I'm surprised that people will push and shove you for sitting in their personal spots... but then, you can get glared at for doing the same in a church pew!

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

PS: I remember her in "Leave it to Beaver" too, of course. I forgave myself long ago for not aspiring to imitate her homemaker style.

Kalei's Best Friend said...

As far as your 'glow' example. I like how u roll! :-)

21 Wits said...

A most golden glow of a post. It was an interesting read as well as glowing photos too.

smalltownme said...

It reminds me of Harry's in Santa Barbara.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Come for the fish...stay for the glow!

Gilly said...

Lovely glowing cocktail in a bar that sounds really interesting! But that fish looks a bit lonely - is he waiting to be eaten???

carmilevy said...

You paint such achingly beautiful pictures of the places you visit. I so want to eat here now. Just lovely!