Kathleen’s Restaurant on North Lake Avenue is celebrating its 34th anniversary this year. It’s a beloved Pasadena institution, one about which I have never heard a negative opinion. So why, I wonder, had it been nearly 16 years, back in the restaurant’s teenage years, since I last visited?

I have many excuses. (“So many restaurants, so little time” comes to mind.) But the main reason, I think, is that Kathleen’s menu has remained pretty static over the years and mostly features mainstream dishes readily available at other restaurants. So, despite its popularity, I haven’t felt the need to go back.

And I have a confession. I wouldn’t have gone back to Kathleen’s this time either if the latest (late April) Pasadena Restaurant Week entrants hadn’t let me down big-time. I was planning to visit several eateries on the list. But less than a week prior to the start of the five-day event, a goodly number of the 32 participants hadn’t bothered to list the special menus or prices they were planning to feature.

I had hoped to sample lunch or dinner at Perry’s, the restaurant at the Constance Hotel whose management was taken over by Claud Beltran last year, but nothing but a general blurb was available on the Restaurant Week website.
They weren’t the only ones; Madeline Garden, POP Champagne Bar and five or six more offered either no information or directed viewers to call for details. The woman who answered my call at the Brookside Country Club, one restaurant I had penciled in on my dance card, informed me on Tuesday that the chef had told her he was only going to offer the advertised Restaurant Week menu on Thursday and Friday.

Frankly, I’m not sure I blame lazy restaurant staff for these lapses. After all, in addition to Cheeseburger Week, we had dineLA’s 14-day event in January, and there’s another coming up in July. It’s hard to pony up new menus and bargain-rate meals every time the Chamber of Commerce or the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board makes a request. Despite the enthusiastic email I got a couple of days ago from the chamber touting a nearly 40 percent increase in diners who booked through OpenTable.com, I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the burnout I sense among restaurateurs.

But I digress. In the midst of so much perceived ennui, Kathleen’s was as enthusiastic as ever, a cheerful and ready participant in the city’s signature event. So, with my original plans stymied, I decided to lunch with a friend at Kathleen’s before taking in a movie, even if items like croissant turkey, tuna, ham, roast beef and vegetarian sandwiches or chicken tostada salad with carrot cake or ice cream for dessert sounded a little pedestrian.

After parking in the rear lot (a real bonus!), we entered by the back door and were immediately greeted and seated in one of the comfortable mauve leatherette booths along the north wall. I’d forgotten about the contrast between the building’s exterior shake-roofed, Tudor-esque rusticity and its sleek interior. While the general layout retains echoes of the coffee shop it once was, its cool cream and gray walls, neutral carpeting and well-spaced tables lend an air of sophistication to the dining area.

And now, about the food! We eschewed sandwiches and ordered the “traditional” Cobb salad with chunks of grilled chicken breast and avocado, lots of bacon, chopped hard-boiled egg, tomato and bleu cheese crumbles and spinach fettuccine with grilled chicken breast and mushrooms in a tarragon-cream sauce with garlic bread. Each of these is $14.95 à la carte on the lunch menu. but only $15 paired with a slice of one of the house-made cakes (usually $6.25-$6.50) for the Restaurant Week event.

The salad was served in a huge bowl about eight inches in diameter and almost three inches deep. After years of kale, quinoa, beets and goat cheese, I’d forgotten just how delicious an old-fashioned Cobb salad can be. It came with two slices of moist, barely sweet zucchini-nut bread, reminiscent of Green Street’s. We could have chosen pumpkin-walnut bread instead, but I’d already grabbed a loaf wrapped up for purchase by the back door along with bags of cookies and biscotti tied up with colorful ribbons.

As good as the salad was, it paled in comparison with the pasta: thick, chewy, curly, moss-green tangles interspersed with lightly charred pieces of chicken and firm sautéed white mushroom slices in a light but rich sauce infused with tarragon, an herb that seems somewhat out of favor these days but remains one of my favorites. Two thick half circles of grilled Italian bread permeated with butter and garlic accompanied the dish.

The noodles were obviously artisan — we asked about them and found out they came from Florentyna’s in Inglewood (check out the website at freshpasta.com). Florentyna’s prices aren’t cheap, but the quality is primo; and the fact that Kathleen’s would choose their product over a more conventional and less expensive dried pasta is indicative of the restaurant’s concern for high standards.

Even the cakes — chocolate velvet whipped cream four-layer cake and carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, which could easily have been boring or bland — were way above average. The chocolate cake was feather light and not overly sweet, its layers interleaved with a light chocolate cream and iced with bittersweet ganache. The carrot cake was rich, dense and heavily textured, with frosting heavily crusted in crushed walnuts.

It seemed as if we ate a lot, but somehow there was plenty of salad, pasta and cake left to box up for dinner that night (giving my mate a chance to sample what he’d missed for lunch). My only regret was that the one dish I’d clearly remembered from my previous visit to Kathleen’s at the turn of the century, a terrific lamb shish kebab, wasn’t on the special menus. No matter, it’s on the regular bill of fare ($15.95 at lunch/$26.95 at dinner).

I’m planning to have that shish kebab the next time I dine at Kathleen’s. And it’s definitely not going to be another 16 years, even though I have little doubt the restaurant will still be going strong. After all, there’s something to be said for the kind of traditional cuisine Kathleen’s specializes in, as long as it’s prepared with the excellence that is also one of the restaurant’s hallmarks.

Kathleen’s Restaurant

595 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena
(626) 578-0722
Beer and Wine/Major Cards