Bistro 45’s birthday could not have come at a better time
By Dan O'Heron 12/01/2011
Swirling a glass of wine at Bistro 45 the other night stirred up a haze of memories.
Most birthdays are times to reminisce, but this turning-21 party was full of irony, with restaurant owner Robert Simon celebrating 21 years in business in Old Pasadena this December and me marking the start of my writing a dining column for the Pasadena Weekly. As it turns out, both events followed failures.
Six months before opening Bistro 45, Simon and his dad had been running the popular Café Jacoulet in Old Pasadena. “It was no fun anymore. I had to get away.”
They almost let me get away at the Weekly, too. Hired in 1990 to edit a sports page, the arrangement wasn’t working out. Unable — and unneeded — to keep up with the dailies for sports scores, I had to stretch for new angles. I believe my last column was about new laws against cockfighting and how the residents of West Covina were crestfallen.
To keep a job, I reluctantly accepted an opening as a restaurant writer. I was willing to eat escargot, even though I pictured snails on my plate traveling on paths of their own slime.
But our efforts — Simon’s and mine — to get something good out of a bad situation portended us getting into situations that were even worse. The ’90s, particularly all of 1991, was a bad time to open a restaurant. So many businesses had invested all their capital in debts. Sound familiar? And, in writing about this stuff, I was spluttering around, having a tough time separating myself from sports-page lingo.
Among restaurants that had closed, or near doom, were Stottlemyers, Chef’s Broiler, Swagman, Sidewalk Café, Benjies, Café Rialto, Dandelion Café, Fleur de Vin, the Baked Potato and many more. Dredging up a sports term that I had used once to describe a Dodger slump, I wrote, “Restaurants in Pasadena are folding up faster than an origami expert in heat.”
Had Simon picked the wrong place to dare the trend? Opening on a one-way street just off the main drag, in a building that once housed a doctor, Simon said he was hit with shouts of “dislocation, dislocation, dislocation” from snubbed realtors. And it didn’t help that in July, 1991, taxes on all beer, wine and liquor were increased.
That didn’t stop me from drinking, and somehow, thanks to owners from Green Street Restaurant, Parkway Grill, The Chronicle, Mi Piace and Xiomara, I was learning about Pasadena’s alimentary geography. But it wasn’t until after several visits to Bistro 45 in 1992 that I could finally say “I got it,” that I was really into the art of the kitchen and the pleasure of eating.
It was here I’d learn that when ideal reciprocal flavors of food and wine are brought together, they provide a gastronomical treat more delicious than either alone could provide. I was inspired to drop the baseball accent and embrace the new language of wine when I’d hear smirky criticisms like, “This California French clone belongs in the circus.”
These dinners, especially winemaking ones, mixed fine food and drink with good company — something that I had rarely experienced at a Dodgers game. Simon, either by dint of inherited forces (dad and Café Jacoulet) or predisposition — helped along by training under Alice Waters in Berkeley — presided over joie de vivre evenings that were endlessly compelling. Often eating there alone, I never felt socially marooned.
Simon always remembered names and preferences while running the tables and mixing dashes of business talk with dollops of whimsy. He made me feel like a celebrity surrounded by buckets of champagne. It was another case of the singer, not the song, that had detained me and kept me returning.
At the other evening’s winemaking dinner, I got the feeling that many others in attendance had a true-blue loyalty to Simon and the restaurant that is not likely to fade. And, after five fine courses, there’s got to be a developing fascination for new Chef Steven Lona.
Formerly at Laguna Beach’s cliff-top studio at the Montage, his kitchen smacks of “mise en place,” a French term that means he has all the best ingredients necessary for fine dishes prepared and ready to combine before cooking; he then cooks them with flair and consequence. Now, after 21 years, a time when paleontologists hunger to study the fossilized remains of most restaurants and restaurant writers, guess who will still be coming to dinner.
45 S. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | (626) 795-2478 | bistro45.com