David (my husband) and I were on our way to a friend’s party in Burbank when he happened to check the calendar and notice that the party wasn’t till next week. We were all dressed up and hungry, so we decided to have dinner at the Smoke House. I love the Smoke House; it’s got this old-Hollywood feel to it (and the website says that “local luminaries such as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby” ate there) but I hadn’t been there since a couple of years ago when my friend Jenelle and I were leaving and saw two large men get into a fight by the valet station, and we jumped in between them and broke it up. I don’t know what we were thinking, and it probably only worked because they were so surprised. Anyway, the Smoke House really is the last place you’d expect to see fist fights, and also Jenelle and I are superheroes.
-A large Tudor-style building. The doors open to a lobby of dark rich wood and maroon carpeting with black-and-white photos of old movie stars everywhere. Just inside the entrance is a lovely wine cabinet with bottles of wine that I bet are impressive if you know anything about wine. There’s an alcove to the side with a long bench and some old photos of old Burbank. A ramp leads up to the host station; straight ahead (and marked by a pink neon “cocktails” sign) is the dimly lit lounge, with a small horseshoe of a bar and then a large but somehow also cozy space full of tables, with a band playing in the corner. To the right of the host’s station is the dining room, where we were seated. Red leather booths and chairs, tables with white tablecloths, dark wood walls covered in more black-and-white photos –and some portraits – of old-time movie stars. It all feels sort of extravagantly opulent, but in a properly reserved way.
-When we arrived we realized that since it was Saturday night there’d be a band playing, and I was worried because as much as I enjoy live music, I don’t like when it is all loud at restaurants and makes dinner conversation impossible. Also I hate jazz, and I thought it would probably be that sort of live music. But the band was playing in the lounge, and when we got to the dining room we could hardly even hear it.
-I wanted to get the Beef Stroganoff, but there’s an awful lot of wine in that dish, and not all of it really cooks off, and since I don’t drink it always makes me super sleepy. The person at the table next to us was eating something that smelled amazing, and I thought it was probably barbecue, and so I got the barbecued chicken, which was great. I think I might have enjoyed barbecued beef even more, but that seemed like too much food. The barbecued chicken came with (incredible) baked beans and corn on the cob, and we got an extra side dish of sautéed mushrooms because we both like sautéed mushrooms. There was also an extremely large onion ring on my plate and someone made the joke, “onion ring?? More like onion arena!” and it wasn’t me. David (my husband) got a pasta dish called Sinatra Steak that looked very good. I was going to ask for a bite but forgot. He says he enjoyed it a good deal.
-The garlic bread is said to be “world famous” and people are always like “Oh, the Smoke House! The garlic bread is amazing!” and act like it’s the entire reason for the Smoke House to exist. I hate the garlic bread. It’s got this weird powdery cheese stuff on top that I find completely gross and it’s so dry and it coats my throat. Every single time I come here I think maybe I was wrong and so I try a bite, and every time I regret it. When the waiter came for our drink orders David (my husband) suggested we get a half order of the bread right away and I didn’t want to say anything because it seemed mean in front of the waiter. So I agreed, and it was fine, because David (my husband) is like most people and had no trouble finishing a half order of the garlic bread all by himself. In the lobby there’s a sign that says “we are now shipping garlic bread!” because that’s how much almost everyone but me likes the stuff; they pay to have it shipped to them even though there is almost definitely garlic bread for sale in their area.
-David (my husband) ordered a dirty martini, and when it came he said “Oh, that’s very dirty!” which I think is a good thing? I don’t really know. The martini came with an extra, tiny bottle of more martini, which sat in a little bowl of ice. It reminded me of when you get a milkshake and they bring the leftover in a metal cup. David (my husband) confided that his favorite part of a martini is really the olives.
-I went to use the ladies’ room and, as always, pretended to be confused about where it was so I could go into the lounge and look around. It was a really nice lounge, I thought. There were lots of small tables where people could sit and drink and listen to the band. It was just the right amount of dark and seemed like a lovely way to spend an evening.
-The ladies’ room had two rooms, one with an elegant little couch and a “My Fair Lady” movie poster, and the other very boring with beige tile. While I was in a stall, three women came in, talking and laughing loudly. One told a story about Steve at work, who’d told her he’d had the door to the restroom fixed, which was good because she’s the only woman there and the lock had been broken, but when she went to use it next the door wouldn’t even close! But they came back and fixed it again and it’s ok. Then she talked about her boss who’d retired which was a shame because he was “super chillax” and then when they asked what he was up to she said “just chillaxing for now” which I thought was a bit much. The conversation wasn’t for me, though, and they were obviously having a nice time together and apparently none of them were the sorts who mind words like “chillax” even when used often.
-There are portraits and photographs of movie stars all around the walls of the dining room. We had fun trying to identify the people — it was sometimes easy and sometimes remarkably hard. There was one we thought, from a distance, was Jerry Lewis but up close turned out to be Jimmy Stewart. I do not think of them as two people who look alike.
-A woman came by the table with a large camera and asked if we wanted a photograph. We did not, and I felt guilty like I always do when I say no to restaurant photographers. But an old boyfriend and I did say yes once, and then we had this picture and it was like now what.
-David (my husband) pointed out that the band was playing a Bee Gees song, but slightly more jazzy than one would expect. I told him that when I was in the bar, they were either playing “Miss Mary Mack” or a song that has very similar lyrics to “Miss Mary Mack.”
-After a while the band took a break, and there was soft music playing in the dining room. One song that played was ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” another was Buddy Holly’s “Everyday.” Then they played “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder and it made me miss my friend Terry because once when he was staying with us, we had a dance party to that song in the kitchen.
-I kept worrying that I’d run out of water — the glass was half ice, which is nice because it’s cold and all but it means you really get very little water — so I ordered a club soda. When the waiter put it on the table, he put a straw next to it, and I said I didn’t need the straw and he got very happy and said, “It’s a paper straw! It’s ok!” So I used the paper straw and it didn’t get all soggy like I’d feared it might.
-A woman in a booth near us stood up and I saw she was wearing metallic shorts over leggings. While it was not a choice I particularly liked, I very much admired her fashion courage. That’s the sort of thing I would buy and then never actually wear outside.
-David (my husband) doesn’t like to let the waiters take away his plate if I’m still eating (and I always am; I eat very slowly especially when I’m stopping to take notes every two seconds). It’s sweet, but so confusing to the waiters when they reach for his completely empty plate with absolutely nothing on it, and he tells them he’s not done yet.
-Because I got barbecue, and even though I ate it all with a knife and fork, the meal came with a little packet that said “Enjoy…” in large letters and “hygienic soft towelette” in smaller letters. Inside was a moist towelette. I appreciated that they didn’t put the word “moist” on the package because I know a lot of people who really hate the word “moist.”
-A waiter walked by who looked EXACTLY like Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” except if Spicoli was a few years older and had a job he really liked and wanted to keep.
-On the way out we walked past the little alcove in the lobby with the photos and the bench and all, and there was a guy sitting there, fiddling with a pack of cards. He looked exactly like a down-on-his-luck 1970s magician. I took a picture of him and the bench and the photos, but decided it would be rude to include it here, because I didn’t ask him if it was okay and I don’t know, he could be in witness protection or something.
What I ate: barbecued chicken, baked beans, corn on the cob, sautéed mushrooms, part of a giant onion ring, one bite of garlic bread.
Who I ate with/Things we talked about: David (my husband); Gary Busey, the Mandell Weiss theatre in La Jolla, Jane Russell, Veronica Mars
What Sort of Ghost I’d Expect to Find if I Believed in Ghosts Which I do Not: Two men who made movies over at the Warner Brothers lot, back in the ‘50s; they’d come to the Smoke House once or twice a week for dinner and sit for hours talking about how the day’s shooting went and how they hoped the next day’s shooting would go. The ghosts hang out and listen to the movie talk from the people who work at Warner Brothers now, sometimes nodding in agreement and sometimes shaking their heads, always wishing they could give advice.