Ambiance

Match your mood — intimate (Green Street Tavern), romantic (The Raymond), festive (POP Champagne), fun (patio dining/drinking and people-watching at The Luggage Room/Stone Company Store), elegant (Shiro), trendy (Union), chic (Bistro 45), nostalgic (Twohey’s), upbeat (Magnolia House), soothing (Tea Rose Garden), etc. Remember, nothing can kill a meal faster than a clash between you and your environment. 


Bread

Gluten-free? Bah, humbug! As the poet says: “A loaf of bread … in the wilderness … were paradise enow.” (I think there’s mention of some wine and a thou as well.) Warm rolls, baguettes, cornbread, foccaccia, biscuits, bagels, croissants, pita, sourdough, rye, whatever — definitely stuff of life. And, as Sholom Aleichem’s Bontcha Schweig humbly requested, some fresh butter. (The best bread basket in town is Parkway Grill’s. But sandwiching at EuroPane means you get to take home a bagful of great grain goodies.) 


Chefs

Foodies know where the good chefs are and good chefs know how to keep foodies happy. We have some giants in our area: Hideo Yamashiro (Shiro), James Graham (Ba), Bruce Kalman (Union), Claud Beltran (Bacchus’ Kitchen and The Eatery), Sean Lowenthal (Little Beast), Andre Guerrero (Maximiliano, The Oinkster, Little Bear) and Paul Ragan (Altaeats). A few, like Yujean Kang and Xiomara Ardolina, have left the city. But, fortunately, we keep attracting new talent.


DIves

In 1982, Elliott Koretz and Michael Nankin wrote Fantastic Dives. Nearly all the locals they featured are still in business and there’s a reason! Eagle Rock’s Casa Bianca and The Bucket, Pasadena’s Cobbler Factory, El Toreo and Pie ‘n Burger and Glendale’s Red Lion Tavern. Wow! 


EXPERIMENTATION

How about trying some great local dim sum (Lunasia), sushi (Kabuki), hot pot (Little Sheep), vegan (Charm) or Asian street food (All India Café, Saladang Song)? Food trucks anybody? Or forgo “the usual” at your go-to eateries to sample some of the chef’s specials — expand those horizons; it’s good exercise!


FREE-RANGE 

A phrase to assuage guilt while devouring delicacies whose relatives you’ve met at petting zoos. Seriously though, free-range, organic, vegetarian-fed antibiotic-free, wild-caught and sustainable are descriptives likely to get you the best meat around. Look at the menus at The Counter, Union, Meat District Co., Oseyo Shabu Shabu, Major Dave’s Chicken, Nikka Fish & Grill — all eateries catering to carnivores with a conscience.


GASTROPUBS 

If you like beer like we do, the proliferation of restaurants featuring craft brews has been a godsend. King’s Row, Slater’s 50/50, 110 & Belleview, Edwin Mills, Der Wolfskopf, Congregation Ale House and TWO Lucky Baldwin’s in Pasadena, Thee Elbow Room and Basis 141 in Montrose, 38 Degrees in Alhambra, The York in Highland Park and a THIRD Lucky Baldwin’s in Sierra Madre! Eagle Rock Brewery has food trucks in its parking lot. Stone’s got pizza on its patio. What’s a man got to do to get a drink around here? Practically nothing!


HOUSE-MADE 

An adjective worthy of attention — no guarantees, but hope springs eternal. Recall Matthew 4:4 — “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Jesus wasn’t really talking about go-withs but, secularly speaking, bread can always be improved with house-made pickles (Union), pâté (A/K/A Bistro), compotes (The Eatery), chutneys (All India Café) and spreads spiked with house-grown organic vegetables and herbs (Parkway Grill). Next best: Local!


INDULGENCE

Restaurant meals are not just for satisfying hunger — what you eat should be special. Cheap and good (sometimes a pizza, burger or taco is just the ticket) or a big splurge to restaurant heaven, a fabulous continental meal (Shiro, Bistro 45, Parkway Grill, the Raymond), a great steak dinner (Arroyo Chop House, The Royce, Del Frisco’s, Ruth’s Chris, etc.) and the best wines you can afford. PS: You probably can’t whip up as scrumptious, complex and calorific a finale as the pastry chefs at any of these places. Heed Epicurious’ advice: “Eat, drink and be merry.” Enjoy the sugar rush!


JAZZ (and other music)

Venues combining food and live entertainment (as long as both are good) are worth their weight in gold (watch out for prices to match)! The best (and practically only one) in town is redwhite+bluezz! Its location next to the Pasadena Playhouse makes it easy to enjoy some of the most appealing food in the city with live jazz, blues and (occasionally) country rock, then take in a show. “A Night with Janis Joplin” is playing till Aug. 16. Chill out at rwb and rock on with Janis!


KITCHEN

Clean, well-managed, consistent and quick —nobody wants to sit around thumb-twiddling waiting for the next course. And nobody wants surprises on the plate when it arrives. Some of the best in MHO? The Derby, The Raymond, Del Frisco’s, Parkway Grill and Shiro. But you’re paying a premium. My accolades go to more casual restaurants like The Counter, El Portal, Carmine’s, Bonnie B’s Smokin and New Delhi Palace, where money can’t buy you love.


IBATIONS

From a good lemonade to a great lemon-drop martini, craft brews to craft cocktails, wines by the glass or bottle, drinks are (almost?) as important as food. The top wine lists are, as expected, at the high-end restaurants; the most interesting beers at the gastropubs. The greatest bars, for me, are the ones with complex mixed drinks and generous Happy Hours: e.g., Ruth’s Chris, Roy’s, 1886 at The Raymond, Slater’s 50/50, Magnolia House, Kabuki, Edwin Mills, redwhite+bluezz. (And apropos of cocktails, did you know Pasadena now has its very own micro-distillary? Stark Spirits will be rising soon at some local pubs, gods willing.)


MENU

Sometimes I think I’ll scream if I see another mention of ahi, quinoa, kale or tiramisu. Yawn. There’s a reason I crave Slater’s pb&j wings, Shiro’s deep-fried catfish, redwhite+bluezz’s country fried chicken skin, Magnolia House’s loukoumides, Radhika’s Indian barbecue baby back ribs, Bacchus’ watermelon poke salad. Something different PULEEZ!


NEW

Not everything new is “improved” but check out the new kids on the block. You might find a treasure. Have you wandered into The Indiana Colony? Pies, ice cream, coffee and juices, all in one “market” interior! Or Blockheads, our new favorite for snow cream (a shave ice variant) sundaes, hidden away on Mills Place despite a Fair Oaks address. Seek and you shall find!


ORIGINALITY

Picasso was rumored to have said that anybody could make something pretty — he made something FIRST! You can take that to extremes. Foam on a spoon doesn’t float my boat. But same ol’, same ol’? See comments under MENU. Deep gratitude for inventive chefs who help our palates throw lovely surprise parties for our stomachs.


PATRONAGE

Don’t you hate it when your favorite restaurants disappear? I grieved when Fu Shing, Yujean Kang, Madeleine’s, Noir, Burger Continental and Haven shut their doors. Hell, I’m still mourning Inn Arty’s, Merida, Rose City Diner, Violet’s, Ibex, Jerry’s, Kabakian’s, Marianne and The Chronicle. As the flight attendant always says, “We know you have other possibilities and we want to thank you for choosing us.” You have to eat at the places you want to hang around.


QUAINT, QUIXOTIC, QUIRKY 

Interiors with real personality are few and far between. Remember Bahooka Ribs and Grog? Scarlet Tea Room? La Luna Negra? Rose City Diner? Thank goodness for Glendale’s Polka, Arcadia’s La Luna Negra, Sesame Grill and The Derby, Pasadena’s The Raymond, Eden Garden, Little Flower, Green Street Tavern, Mint Leaf, Central Park, Magnolia House, A’Float Sushi and Porta Via. Keeping charm alive!


RESTAURATEURS

They make the great meals happen. A hellish profession with lots of ups and downs. In addition to  chef/proprietors mentioned previously, I light figurative candles daily to entrepreneurs like Robert Simon (Bistro 45, A/K/A), the Smith Brothers (Smitty’s, Seco, Arroyo Chop House, Parkway Grill), Jack Huang (Sorriso, Bar Celona, iXtapa), Karan and Candy Raina (Radhika, Aro), John and Jo Wee (Daisy Mint, Abricott), Randy Hoffman and David Yost (Canoe House, Central Park, Diner on Main, Beckham Place), Chris and John Bicos (Gus’s BBQ, Tops, Magnolia House), Dang Vattanatham (Saladang, Saladang Song) and Dustin Nicolarsen (The Derby, Carmine’s, White Horse Lounge) who take all the risks to back the talent it takes to make their restaurant “empires” successful. Plus those who sink all their time, effort and wherewithal into a single venture of love. Really, bless you all!


SERVICE

Can make or break. Notice your wait-staff and be kind! I worked my way through school as a pizza joint and family restaurant server. Trust me, that gig is HARD. And remember, a 20 percent + tip for a $7.95 breakfast with oj, eggs over light, rye toast no butter, bacon done extra crisp and 14 coffee refills is likely to be a helluva lot more appreciated than the same amount for a $100 steak dinner with a $90 bottle of wine.


Trucks

Once upon a time you had to go to where the good food is. Now it comes to you. Office buildings, farmers’ markets, street fairs, wherever! “Not-your-daddy’s” contemporary food trucks specialize in some great street eats. Burgers and tacos, yes; but there are rolling restaurants offering Korean BBQ, soul food, noodles, crepes, mac & cheese, lobster rolls, sushi, vegan dishes and even hi-test margaritas. (And check out Jon Favreau’s movie “Chef” to see what today’s mobile eateries are all about.)


UNIQUE

Innovations become trends become clichés. But, occasionally a local restaurant with an unusual concept or cuisine will appear. Savor the existence of such rare, fragile birds and bless them with your patronage. Once upon a time, Pasadena boasted Ethiopian, Moroccan, French, Russian and Australian restaurants, plus a good 24-hour Jewish deli. Alas, no more!


VALUE

If hubby wants In-N-Out on the way home from dinner, there’s been too much plate and not enough food. And it’s not just quantity. Quality counts. An excellent $10 burger can provide far better value than a mediocre $50 steak. A restaurant doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. And the converse applies.


WORD-OF-MOUTH 

Tips from friends and family? (For instance, did you know Bulgarini Gelato’s now serving hand-made artisanal pasta?) Pay attention! Lots of buzz? (Have you tried Little Flower’s new baby sister Lincoln?) Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. Enjoy the heat!


XENOPHILIA

Love of foreign people, manners, culture and FOOD. Forgodsake take advantage of the myriad exotic cuisines available within a 10-mile radius! Will you wind up loving mapu tofu, sea urchin, bibimbap, larb, squid ink pasta, rogan josh, rijsttafel, steak tartare, mutabal, groundnut stew, injera, huaraches, golabki?  Probably not all, but definitely some. Don’t “Trump” yourself out of close-up encounters with our immigrant residents and their native foods.


YELP

First, ignore any review that begins “I’ve never had ‘x’ food before” or “Everything was delish!” But you can learn a lot from prior diners (and the photos they post of every single food item they order). And, speaking of on-line aids, any foodie on a budget who isn’t getting daily offers from Groupon, Living Social, Blackboard Eats, Amazon Local, etc. is missing out. SIGN UP NOW!


ZEST

Never lose it when it comes to trying new restaurants and foods.
As Will Rogers said, “A stranger is simply a friend I haven’t met yet.”