Love lost and found
A nostalgic meal at Jake’s Café saved our marriage
By Erica Wayne 06/05/2013
I can’t tell you how grateful we’ve been to Jake’s since it opened over two decades ago. Not only was it a cool place to hang out, but it actually saved our marriage. You see, we’d only recently moved in together, and our house had this room which I called “our family room.” He called it “the place for the pool table when we get one.” This debate started immediately after we combined households.
At first it was understated: “Don’t you think the TV would look good suspended from the ceiling?” he’d ask. Then, as the relationship settled into comfortable semi-permanency: “I’ve made these diagrams. If we just moved the sofa all the way back by the sliding glass doors and got rid of the coffee table, those chairs, the lamp, the stereo, the cats …” My problem (I’ve got to admit it was mine) was I just couldn’t visualize a multi-thousand dollar, green-felted monstrosity with gold tassels that looked like a cross between a ’30s Ford station wagon and a Victorian hearse and required a six-foot clearance in my sleekly contemporary family room. And I wasn’t about to give in, even to keep my man.
Of course I felt guilty. After all, my mate commutes all the way from Pasadena to UCLA each day just to put bread on the table, cat food in those little dishes on the floor and help pay our astronomical mortgage. Didn’t this darling, malleable guy have the right to a little recreational pool after a hard day of academic pursuits? A cigar or two? A few beers? Hell no! Not in MY house!
So thank goodness for Jake’s, the billiard hall and eatery in Old Pasadena. When it opened, it was the perfect place to satisfy his pool and liquor cravings (nice Brunswick Gold Crown tables, a wonderfully ornate and splendid full bar) and his cigar cravings all at once. Furthermore, the atmosphere was so swank that he didn’t even have to be disinfected when he came home. (Aired out maybe, but not disinfected!)
As for the food: The original menu included burgers, pizza and a number of hot dishes. But over the years it’s been pared down. Now it consists of a “Build Your Own Burger” checklist (base price for beef, chicken, turkey, salmon, or veggie - $5.99) with a selection of additions and toppings. The only other non-side items are chicken tenders ($6.99), Buffalo wings ($8.99), sliders ($5.99), hot dogs ($3.99) and mini corndogs ($4.99).
When we first went to Jake’s, it was two thumbs up for eats and then a practiced thumb down as Alan happily steadied his cue. We stopped fighting about our family room and soon tied the knot. But Alan’s visits to Jake’s decreased after the non-smoking ordinance went into effect. And, as he hit middle age and discovered Sudoku, Jake’s attractions became less seductive. We haven’t set foot in the place in well over 10 years. But a few days back, we decided to check it out for old times’ sake.
Jake’s layout is a little schizophrenic. At street level, a small brightly lit diner fronts onto Colorado Boulevard and Mills Alley and hardly seems to have changed over the years. Clean, spare and reminiscent of a Hopper painting or a stage set, it opens early for lunch. Stools flank a zigzag counter that runs through the center and another along the periphery of the white, black and chrome, red-trimmed interior, with two or three tables toward the rear.
Down the back stairs is a different world that opens at 4 p.m. A huge, three-room suite lit with sconces, neon beer signs and green-shaded lamps over the tables is the authentic habitat of the serious pool player. Here, in the day-is-night dusk, the staccato flicker of wall-mounted TVs, the cacophony of conversation and the click of ball against ball and glass against bottle provide continuous punctuation.
The front room houses the massive bar and tables for sit-down drinking and dining. Pool tables fill the middle and rear rooms, and there’s a small stage for comedy acts and musical groups that entertain periodically. Near the stage, embedded in a rear wall, is a huge tropical fish tank. And a couple of motorcycles are set up on pedestals like sculpture.
For last week’s lunch, my mate ordered a hamburger ($5.99) on a sesame bun with bleu cheese crumbles ($1.29) and sautéed onions (gratis). I had a salmon burger ($5.99) on whole wheat with pico de gallo, red onion and pickles (all free). We had baskets of fries ($2.59) and onion rings ($3.49) and splurged on a “shake of the month” (Butterfinger — $4.99).
The beef burger was perfectly edible, but not outstanding. My salmon, surprisingly enough, was better — a thick patty with no fishiness. Our fries were coated with addictive seasoned salt. The rings were the heavily coated kind, plentiful, tasty but a little greasy. And the handmade shake (with real milk and ice cream) was super, served in a traditional fountain glass topped with lots of whipped cream. The excess came to the table in the aluminum container in which it was blended.
When we were through eating, we wandered downstairs. Without the action, the empty spaces appeared a bit less posh and somewhat more worn than they once were. But so are we. My guess is the average age of the players is probably closer to ours was when the place was new. But, while it may not be a frequent venue for us anymore, we’ll always have fond memories of how Jake’s saved our marriage.