If you ask Angelinos of a certain age, say that of the baby boomer demographic, they’ll say, “oh I know Valentino’s, haven’t been there in years.” or “I’ve been there many times, but haven’t been in ages” or “Valentino’s? I used to go there to meet men after my divorce.” – anonymous.
Zaya and I had never been to, let alone heard of Valentino’s, but when we read Gold’s review and saw the $$$$, we thought double date. A rare occasion for working parents. Even rarer, on a Tuesday night. Why a Tuesday night? Tuesday’s are certainly not quite as cringe inducing as Monday’s, but still, as days of the week go, sad sack status. Dates on a Tuesday night? Just weird. As a family we often eat out on Thursday nights, aka “tiny Friday’s” but Tuesday nights are generally for light dinners at home, eaten standing up, while school lunches are made and CNN is the only entertainment dully blaring in the background. Don’t judge.
But Tuesday night was the only reservation available to us, like, ever. As I was casually going online to make said reservation, I googled (verb) ‘Valentino’s’ which immediately yielded an Eater article announcing the pending closure of Valentino’s after 46 years. Shit. Not only was I worried we wouldn’t get there prior to it’s last night of service, December 31, 2018, but this was a foreshadowing of a fear Zaya and I had had since embarking on our JG journey.
What if the restaurant’s close before we can get to them? Then what? While we’d diplomatically decided that if that happened, we would skip it and move on to the next one on the list, this was the closest we’d come to facing that disappointing scenario.
I quickly secured a reservation. Tuesday, Nov. 20 7:30pm. I would come straight from work as I’d be in Pacific Palisades that day. Matt would drive out to Santa Monica with Zaya and Maria. It was the week of Thanksgiving so traffic was light, we got there early and were easily accommodated.
When you pull into the valet at Valentino’s it’s quickly apparent that the place is dated. More formal in feel, an interpretation of Euro modernism tainted with an eighties puke palette and deliberate, new wave edges…via Italy. Quiet enough on entry to make the guests feel like they’re intruding. Walking into the dining room though, felt a bit livelier, every table full and a dim warmness awaiting you. Tables close together, warm sconces, white linen tablecloth scene.
Most patrons were of the over 60 set. Perhaps longtime loyalists not just to Valentino’s, but to a not too distant past where LA excess was a given for white working men. They were there with friends, with wives, with girlfriends, sitting quietly together, or as was the case of the couple to our right, grandparents there with their young prep school grand-kids, on what seemed like any other night.
We ordered. In Jonathan Gold’s review he focuses on Valentino’s being among the “last great host driven restaurants” and “the first in Los Angeles to serve white truffles, balsamic vinegar and radicchio.” And, music to Maria and I, “the wine list is extraordinary.” We quickly spotted the $25,000.00 bottle on the menu. We didn’t order it. We did order Crudo di Pesce, Polpette Di Granchio which were insanely delicious crab cakes wrapped in smoked guanciale delivering the most delicate hint of the sea almost a mousse really, met with the contrast of salty pork. HEAVEN. The pale green gnocchi with tomatoes and the duck ragu lasagna, a truly sublime experience. The kind of experience that causes one to re prioritize their five senses and realize taste is actually more important than sight, sound or touch.
My husband of 17 years, not quick to praise, so when he does it carries the weight of authenticity, was impressed. “This is really, really good,” he said between bites. Zay got the Osso Buco on polenta, but kept stealing bites of the dishes Maria and I were sharing, the gnocchi and the lasagna. She and I were deep into our bottle of Ridolfi Brunello, when she asked me, mumbling between closed lips, gesturing with her eyes to the table next to us, “what are they drinking?”
I looked to the grandparents next to us, then to the bottle of vintage they were sipping. I noted the name of the bottle, ‘Chateau Margaux’. Just then, done with their meal, they got up to leave. Once gone, Maria said that the grandfather was murmuring his disapproval that such an expensive bottle wasn’t up to his standards. I grabbed the bottle left on their table so we could get a closer look at the label. $1,000.00 bottle. Still half full. We didn’t let it go to waste.
Dessert. Dessert wine. Soon enough Valentino’s felt like the time capsule you wanted to die in. Hum of happy diners, servers charmingly insistent on what to order with their thick italian accents. All while the warm November air outside began blowing away another LA institution.