So this young couple slipped into the dimpled red booth. “They sat apart. They were shy,” says Tula. But this is Cafe La Maze. Big portraits of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard and a bunch of other early movie stars stare down. There’s talk of ghosts.
1441 Highland Avenue, National City
“And suddenly, the dishes started rattling. Rattle rattle rattle! The couple were terrified. ‘Sit closer together!’ I yelled at them. ‘They want you together!’”
And Tula, who’s a manager here, swears as soon as they did, the rattling stopped. “It’s not unusual,” she says. “This used to be a stopover for the stars. And see this?”
She leads me to a door. Outlined on the black leatherette padding: the shape of a key. “This was the way to the Key Club,” she says. “They had gambling, and, uh, other activity upstairs. It was quite a place.” She shows me copies of news stories detailing the police raids that brought all that to an end, in 1949.
Me, I came in here tonight for some honest beef. Steak, ribs, whatever. But you can’t help pick up on the glam when you’re sitting right where Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, all actually sat, when it was a way-station to the fun of Agua Caliente in TJ.
The amazing thing is the stars have gone, but this place has hung in, unchanged, serving what feels like the same menu as way back when. Which is fine by me: I need red meat tonight. Feel like I’ve hardly had any for months. Luckily, here on Highland, National City, I spotted a lit sign on a brick wall. “La Maze.” And a row of movie star shots.
Starpower is one thing. Steakpower is another. They specialize here in prime rib and steak. Perfect timing! I feel like I need to join a pride of lions gnawing at a nice juicy carcass. This is my chance.
I head in, through big red doors. Noisy bar’s on the right, and a big, surprisingly glam dining room to the left. And hey, Monday night, eight o’clock, an hour before closing? The place is still busy. Military people, elderly couples, couples with kids. First thing you notice is the music. Totally retro. “Put Your Head on my Shoulder” (Paul Anka, 1959), “New York New York,” (Frank), “Blue Suede Shoes,” (Man Himself). Golden Age stars look down from their wall portraits, surrounded by glitzy red and silver wallpaper. Now, four waitresses process over to a party sitting under Marlene Dietrich. They put down a cake and start clapping and singing. “Happy birthday to you!” Soon half the place has joined in. Birthday boy Carl sits there, all aw-shucks. Marlene Dietrich looks down, smiling, sleepily sexy.
Pilar the waitress comes over with the menu. It has a ton of old school items, from appetizers such as “our famous prime rib bones smothered in BBQ sauce, $5.50 each,” or sautéed mushrooms ($10.95), to French onion soup ($6.50 bowl, $5.50 cup). Or up in the “sandwiches” department, a sirloin burger that runs $13.95 (with steak fries, or for $2 more, baked potato, mash, salad, or soup of the day). Or a prime rib dip with horseradish and same side deals, $15.95.
Me, I just want prime rib and baked potato. But prices really jack up when we cut to the prime rib and steak section. The cheapest, the petite cut, 9-ounce, is $25.95. I mean, let yourself go here and the sky’s the limit. The “regular,” (12-ounce) is $30, “La Maze cut,” the 16-ounce, is $36, and the Grand Cut (24-ounce) is $47. Prices are around the same on the “steak” side. The 9-ounce “petite cut” top sirloin is $20.95, a 12-ounce filet mignon is $36.95. And if you want to spend another $22, you could add half a pound of Alaskan king crab legs. Sigh.
Of course, with all of them, you get soup or salad, fries or baked potato (yea!) I ask Pilar for the petite cut prime rib with baked potato and salad. And first off, there’s a lot of salad. You could half fill the greedy gut with that. Then the baked potato comes with unlimited butter, and sour cream with chives, and the plate comes with hot buns, granny veggies such as broccoli and cucumber, a pot of jus, and creamy horseradish.
The prime rib may be petite, but it is plenty enough. I launch into slicing, dipping, loading up with horseradish, then glomming down a chunk of baked potato with sour cream and chives. So scrumptious. Sometimes old-school just hits it right. And the meat really does satisfy a blood craving.
I wax so enthusiastic about the horseradish that Pilar brings me a bowl of the pure stuff. That’s when I have my moment. I load a little pile on my meat and...OMG! The pure, mustardy fumes flame up through my nostrils, expanding and burning. It’s scary powerful stuff. Really takes a minute to settle back down. I’m way more careful from then on. Errol Flynn looks down. “Wimp!” he says.
As I’m getting up, “He’s So Fine” (the Chiffons) is playing. I see on the menu it says “$2 for split plates.” Huh! Way to go! So if I come with someone next time, we could split the prime rib, and it’d be enough for two for sure. That’d be around $12 for each of us.
Because I like this place, ghosts and all. They’re serious about their history, it’s still glam, and hey, Marlene Dietrich did actually sit right here.
- The Place: Cafe La Maze, 1441 Highland Avenue, National City, 619-474-3222
- Hours: 11am-9pm, daily (till 10pm, Friday, Saturday)
- Prices: Prime rib bones (BBQ sauce), $5.50 each; sautéed mushrooms, $10.95; French onion soup, $6.50 (bowl), $5.50 (cup); sirloin burger, $13.95 (with steak fries, or for $2 more, baked potato, mash, salad or soup of the day); prime rib dip, horseradish, au jus, same sides, $15.95; prime rib petite cut, 9-ounce, $25.95; “regular” cut (12-ounce) $29.95; “La Maze” cut, (16-ounce), $35.95; Grand Cut (24-ounce), $46.95; 9-ounce “petite cut” top sirloin steak $20.95; 12-ounce filet mignon, $36.95
- Bus: 929
- Nearest Bus Stops: Highland and E.13th (northbound); Highland and E.14th (southbound)