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Prime-time dining

Gourmet Club helps seniors mix good food with great company at area restaurants

By Dan O'Heron 04/04/2013

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There are two kinds of “junkets.” One is a trip taken at public expense by a group of government officials, ostensibly to gather information but actually just to stay out late. The other type, more in keeping with the private sector, are trips like the ones taken by members of the Pasadena Senior Citizens' Gourmet Club, who visit restaurants for unmitigated pleasure but pay their own tabs.

The club is co-chaired by Margaret Lawson and Sidney Heyman, both former aviators who are now well-grounded in studies about the Greater Pasadena restaurant scene. The pair’s mission is not to avenge airline food, but to promote the mixture of good eating with good company for senior citizens.

As a former pilot examiner, Lawson prepared both private and commercial pilots for instrument flying. In 1983, and again in 1984, she piloted her own single-engine aircraft from El Monte Airport to Sweden. She holds an Airline Transport Certificate — a singular honor, especially for a woman. It doesn’t allow her to pilot the plane these days, but it gives her a first-class seat.

As Gourmet Club co-chairwoman, she recruits members, schedules events and dickers with restaurant managers to get meals at the best prices for both prix fixe dinners and individual orders off the menu. Members, many on fixed incomes, delight in this.

On the third Tuesday of each month, some 30 of the group’s 70 members usually turn up at tables that feature both varied ethnic cookery and unique American cuisines. Places with lawnmower food are rarely scheduled. The next meeting is at Burger Continental on April 16.

Co-chair Heyman, who earned his instrument landing license from Lawson, serves as the club’s bookkeeper and speechmaker. A former teacher of computer science and mathematics, Heyman said he likes to eat blintzes at Carrow’s, sweet and sour pork at Spring Gardens and tuna sandwiches at Subway. Members say that they like to hear Heyman, an accomplished musician, play the Alp Horn at Oktoberfest celebrations.

Following are reflections of some other members:
In terms of seniority, Dorothy Graff, at age 90, may be the oldest club member, but she maintains a mostly sprightly wit. “I’m a diabetic,” said Graff in a telephone conversation, “but that’s nothing special. The country is diabetic.”
Missing brownies covered with ice cream and topped with chocolate syrup, she admits to being a “chocoholic.” At the upcoming visit to Burger Continental, will she enjoy watching the belly dancers? “That’s not for me, but it would be OK if men were doing it.”

Her favorite restaurant: Houston’s. Her favorite dish: artichokes. “I’m drawn to them by Houston’s chandeliers, which look like upside-down artichokes.”

Another Gourmet Club member with a biting sense of humor is Laverne Carter, 88. She’s from Missouri. I reminded her that Missouri is the “Show Me” state; that folks there have no faith in anything and must see proof before believing. In Pasadena, she said Spring Garden has proven to her that sweet and sour meals are really delicious.

Joan McManamon, 83, a former paralegal and school teacher, said she likes to extend a pinkie at Scarlet Tea Room and eat shrimp with lobster sauce at Fu Shing.

“And, I can’t say enough good things about the way Margaret and Sid pick out the restaurants, although I hear that the service at Burger Continental is a little slow.”

In a career in finance, Kathleen Osmom, 76, said she loved working in the title industry, but had no rapturous intensity for escrow, which she calls “an unsophisticated business.” In the club, “I’m not big on prix fixe dinners and would rather order off the menu.” She said that she’s eager about an upcoming club visit to Shakers but wonders about Canoe House. “Do they serve island food?”

Carol Vessels, 76, said that she likes the fish specials at Green Street Restaurant and the pizza at Pinocchio’s. She worked at the National Automobile Club in Los Angeles, “but when they moved up north, I stayed here with my family. I didn’t want to be in a place where I didn’t know anyone.” She’s glad that the Pasadena club is “full of cheer and easy laughter,” and that she knows all the people who make it happen.

During last month’s club visit to Mijares,  a woman who identified herserlf only as Belen, 70-something, said she enjoyed the tacos and enchiladas. “I have no diet restrictions except portion control.” In her first career, “as a mother of six, I learned about portion control.” In her second career at the DMV, “I learned that patience and uncomplaining waiting — just like at restaurants — is a must.”

“I admire the efficient way Margaret and Sidney work with us in finding the best places to eat at decent prices,” said Erlinda Serrano, 67, the youngest person interviewed. After working 42 years in administration in downtown Los Angeles, Serrano knows something about efficiency and good eating.

In a long haul at Arco Plaza Towers, she occasionally dined at its 51st floor private restaurant that once hosted events for President Richard Nixon and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. “But I still enjoyed getting down the street to the original Colombo’s (its offspring now in Eagle Rock) and Casey’s Irish Pub.” Now, in South Pasadena, she likes Gus’s Barbecue. “But what I really like about our club is the friendship I’ve developed with other members and the feeling of welcome I get at the restaurants.”

Between friendships and good eating, the Gourmet Club seems to think as much about the singers as they do the songs.

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