Mussels — hate to disturb the bowl
1132 Prospect Street, San Diego
1132 Prospect Street, La Jolla, CA
I went here before the Paris massacre. Now I’m glad I did. Because it makes you remember what it is you love about the French. Like, Paris, and the café life they gave the world.
Actually I was doing a wander along Prospect, among its displays of Rolls Royces, Persian carpets, spas, then the Grand Old Lady of La Jolla herself: La Valencia.
What the heck. Head in through the garden terrace and the main entrance, just to see the ocean view. Then I notice a clump of well-dressed gents going through a door to the Whaling Bar. Raymond Chandler’s hangout. Chandler? The Big Sleep. The Long Goodbye. Philip Marlowe, Private Eye. Farewell, My Lovely. That guy invented noir.
I follow them in. Except, no sign of whales on the walls. And bigger than I remember. Brighter.
“It’s all Café La Rue now,” says this bright gal, Lisa.
I suddenly wonder: “Do you have a happy hour?” Because, to eat here, cool.
“Oh, yes,” she says. “Four to seven every day; like, now. Half off all appetizers.”
Lisa, the manager
“Half off beer and wine. Five-dollar house-poured cocktails, seven-dollar martinis.”
Guys ahead land like a wing of pelicans on bar stools, talking up the day’s business. I take the spare. The bar is U-shaped. Cream walls, dark wood tables, orange-shaded candles, long drapes at the windows, red umbrellas peeping through from a little terrace outside, paintings of Paris scenes with parks, red-and-white-striped umbrellas. And looking over the whole scene from his pedestal, big ceramic Dalmatian dawg.
All very nice, but, well, not the Whaling Bar. Oh. I get it. They’ve bust through the wall and doubled the size, brought in that café they had next door.
“Now it’s all Café La Rue,” says the barkeep.
Man, I bet Raymond’s turning in his grave at that one. He wrote his gut-twisting thriller Playback, which ends up here, in this bar, in the town of Esmeralda. (Read: La Jolla). The Whaling Bar was a shrine to, like, all noir writing, and specially him, the Pa of Noir.
The menu is expensive, of course. But now I’m checking the “Starters” column, and, cut it in half and we have ourselves some traction. They lead with “fromages,” local artisan cheeses with cranberry crostini, for $18. So, $9. Charcuterie ($21 = $10.50) has a bunch of Angel Salumi meats, mustard, pickled veggies. Combo of the two is $24 ($12).
But it gets more interesting with the mussels ($12 = $6) in butter, tomato, parsley, and sherry with crostini. And then, “Brussels La Rue” ($10 = $5). That’s a good price, and they come with Kalamata olives, pepperoncini, and parmesan.
Plus, so much. Black truffle chicken pâté with toast and jam for $14 (= $7). Lobster corn dogs with mustard sauce ($12 = $6). Then, three pizza-type flatbreads: tomato artichoke ($11 = $5.50), chicken sausage with caramelized onions and roasted apples ($12 = $6), and squash and prosciutto with goat cheese and pomegranate seeds ($14 = $7).
There’s more, but I’ve already decided. Brussels and mussels. That’s 11 Washingtons, and, let’s see...um zu trinken? (as this German girlfriend of mine — way before Carla — always said in this situation). I play it safe and get a Budweiser for $2.50. When the guy pours it into the tall glass, it looks just as good as a $20 Belgian or a Yellowtail.
And, really, when the sprouts come, I can’t believe I’m only paying $6. They arrive sizzling in a little iron frypan bulging with not just sprouts, but tons of dark matter — olives? Onions? Cheese? Whatever, a beautiful mess. More to the point, the combo has disguised that boiled, steamy yuck taste brussels sprouts usually deliver, yet they’re still recognizably cabbage’s baby cousins.
Brussels sprouts and mix in iron skillet. For five bucks.
The mussels? They arrive in a beautiful sky-blue, giant mussel-shell-shaped bowl with maybe a dozen black mussels in a bed of cioppino, plus halved red and yellow mini-tomatoes, and I can see a little salmon-colored lake of liquids below, like a crater lake, for dipping. A couple of large crostini breads wall up the sides, plus a latticework of giant sprouts put art on the top. You hate to disturb a thing.
When I do, I realize the one thing we’re lacking is actual bread. You need it to get down and soak up some of those juices. Crostini? Uh, no. I stop a waiter, William, on his way to the servery. “Could I get some actual bread?”
He goes. He asks. This kitchen doesn’t have any. “Don’t worry,” he says, and disappears out from the bar. Comes back five minutes later with half a baguette, cut up. “Other kitchen,” he says.
And it does make all the difference.
“Everything okay?” says Lisa. Turns out she’s the manager.
“Double William’s pay,” I say. “And why did you kill the Whaling Bar?”
“I think they just thought it was time,” she says. “And now we have twice the space.”
She tells me all about the “pink lady,” as they call this 90-year-old pile. About the architect, Reginald Johnson, local, who loved Spanish architecture; about Wing Howard, the artist who painted these Parisian scenes back in the 1930s; and of course about Raymond Chandler. Where he sat, held court, drank, and drank.
But not just him. Chandler was probably first hauled in here by his buddy Gregory Peck, who founded the La Jolla Playhouse. Soon, this was the getaway place for Hollywood: like, Peck’s buddies Charlton Heston, Jennifer Jones, Lorne Green, David Niven, lots of others. If these walls could talk...
So, now this horror in Paris. But in the City of Love? I think of Casablanca. Bogart to Bergman: “We’ll always have Paris.”
The Place: Café La Rue, 1132 Prospect Street, La Jolla, 858-454-0771
Happy Hour Prices: Cheese plate with cranberry crostini, $9; charcuterie plate, $10.50; cheese/charcuterie combo plate, $12; mussels with crostini, $6; Brussels La Rue (sizzling sprouts with olives, onions, cheese, pepperoncini), $5; black truffle chicken pâté with toast, jam, $7; lobster corn dogs, $6; tomato artichoke flatbread, $5.50; chicken sausage flatbread with roasted apples, $6; squash and prosciutto flatbread with goat cheese, pomegranate, $7
Happy Hour: 4–7 p.m., daily
Nearest bus stop: Silverado at Herschel