Nostalgia is a tricky devil. Are things still as good as we think they once were?
Ah, the 70s. Watergate. Disco. Gas lines. Platform shoes. Godfather I & II. Hot tubs. Pot going middle-class.
In retrospect, much of the culture of the 1970s makes it seem like a pretty goofy decade, but if you lived it, like I did, there were some fun things to eat and drink in that era, many which have largely disappeared. Some you can still find at retro restaurants like the Dal Rae in Pico Rivera.
Which brings me to the concept of nostalgia itself. Most things are never as good as we remember them. Certain recordings may give you a happy, fuzzy feeling, but they don’t have the power they did when first listened to. Fashions come and go, look cool, then stupid, then they get recycled for another generation.
Nostalgia is a tricky devil. The thought of an old flame might secretly raise your pulse, but decades later when meeting up with your former lover, you realize pretty quickly why you both moved on. Damn that Facebook.
Food and drink are among the trickiest, even in the short term. Who hasn’t visited a tasting room, bought the wines they loved, got them home, and after opening them wondered why you bought them in the first place? Our friend Carl Taylor pointed out it’s even truer for vacation wine, which he calls "the best wine in the world". “Why can’t we make wine in California that tastes as good as they were on my vacation to (pick one) Greece, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Croatia, Spain?” we hear at the wine store, knowing full well just about any wine tastes good on vacation.
When I think back to my formative adult years in the 1970s, a hot ticket would be ordering Surf ‘n’ Turf at the Chart House before going dancing at the Red Onion. Or eating broiled scampi if you were lucky enough to get a seat at the oyster bar at Delaney’s in Newport Beach.
But if you wanted to really impress your date, you’d book a table at a posh white tablecloth restaurant where the dashing maître d’ made you feel as grown up as your parents, as long as he knew you had enough cash.
In the early 1970s, fine dining was still a carry-over from the French Continental era, where lush sauces raised cuts of meat, fish and poultry to a fancified middle-American version of Haute-Cuisine. It was thrilling to watch the tuxedoed captain prepare a flaming Chateaubriand Bouquetière tableside, dutifully slicing your rare tenderloin into medallions, dousing the cuts with ribbons of Bearnaise and Bordelaise sauces, and arranging the vegetables and piped mashed potatoes artfully around the plate. It was the most expensive thing on the menu, but you ordered it because for a price, you could live one night like an investment banker.
In any era, part of being in your 20s is getting together with friends, and in the 1970s, a favorite communal dish was cheese fondue. Staring at that lightly bubbling pot of melted gruyere, Swiss, dry white wine, Kirschwasser and a dash of nutmeg, each of us would take turns skewering a cube of French bread or an apple slice, swirling it in the cheesy goo, and savoring each morsel with immense pleasure, washing each bite down with a gulp of chilled Liebfraumilch.
Fast forward 50 years and I ask you, except for the Liebfaumilch, do you think cheese fondue with friends will taste as great today as it did then? Or will it be as disappointing as tasting room wine?
As I mulled over this bygone ritual, I thought of other dishes I remember liking through the gauze of time. And I also wondered whether they would taste as good today as I think they did then:
Crepes—There was a chain of restaurants in the 1970s called The Magic Pan, originally from San Francisco, who demonstrated that crepes weren’t only for dessert, but could be savory as well. Shellfish in sherried cream sauces and beef in red wine sauce were stuffed inside freshly made crepes. Afterward, warm crepes with custardy fillings or classic Crepes Suzettes would be the much-anticipated desserts. Then the restaurants disappeared. So did the crepes.
Quiche Lorraine—Who doesn’t love cheesy, creamy, bacon-y egg pie? I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Preferably with a chilled Vouvray or Beaujolais.
Beef Wellington—Filet-Mignon with foie gras and/or mushroom duxelles baked in a puff pastry, served with red Burgundy, red Bordeaux, or both.
French Onion Soup—Melted gruyere on top of a crouton soaking in a savory beef broth full of limp sweet onions. Soup with cheese fondue on top.
Veal Oscar—Pounded, floured cutlets of veal sautéed in butter, then covered with king crab legs and asparagus, all covered in bearnaise sauce. Surf ‘n’ turf and gooey goodness.
Pork Crown Roast—Where can you go to get this spectacular looking dish? It probably vanished because you need eight people to eat one. Frenched pork chops in a Dijon crust, accompanied with mashed potato or bread stuffing. If only I could find seven friends.
Beef Bourguignon—Braised beef in a red wine sauce with bacon, carrots, mushrooms, pearl onions and other stew-y vegetables. I could eat this every day of the week. Largely ignored until the movie Julie and Julia revived it in a pivotal scene. Boof Burgundy.
Chili Size—Ground beef served open face on a buttery toasted hamburger bun, topped with good chili beans. Ask anyone under 30 if they’ve ever heard of a Chili Size and they’ll look at you as if you had just asked them how to work a rotary phone. But I assure you, it was on most coffee shop menus.
Cherries Jubilee—Bing cherries sautéed in butter, sugar, Kirschwasser, and a squeeze of orange, flamed in the pan, then poured over scoops of French Vanilla ice cream. High Crimes and Misdemeanors for your diet.
Hugely Popular Cocktails of the 1970s
At the beginning of the 1970s, bartenders made bloody marys from scratch, knew how to cure a winter cold with a bourbon concoction, and served up all sorts of sweet, dangerous drinks. By the end of the 70s, chain bars had automated hoses that measured pre-made booze and mixes for cost control. A lot of bar culture was lost until the craft cocktail movement attempted to revive it.
Still, I have fond memories of ‘70s nightlife and weekend parties that began and ended with drinks like these:
Tom Collins—A spritzy, citrusy semi-sweet drink made from gin and Collins mix. Canada Dry and Schwepps both sold tons of Collins mixes. Then they didn’t. Now, practically nobody does.
Brandy Alexander—Brandy, crème de cacao and heavy cream, shaken in ice, then strained into a martini glass. Rather tasted like a brandy milkshake.
Rusty Nail—Scotch and Drambuie. Sort of tasted like scotch-y ivory soap, but it did the job.
Grasshopper—Crème de menthe, white crème de cacao and heavy cream, sometimes served with an Oreo garnish. In a nightclub, your date could drink five or six of these before the set was over.
Stinger—Brandy and crème de menthe. So named because you didn’t feel the sting when you drank it. Only after.
Zombie—A tiki drink so potent, Don the Beachcomber put a two-drink limit on it. Sweet. Fruity. Deadly.
Golden Cadillac—A very popular drink in the 1970s with white crème de cacao, heavy cream and Galliano, an Italian liqueur known for its distinctive tall, slender bottle, so popular, every backbar had a giant bottle lit from below. Not to be confused with a Golden Shower, which is disgusting.
Harvey Wallbanger—The name was a real knee-slapper in the era of skinny dipping parties and the Pill. It was simply a Screwdriver (another hardy-har-har) with a float of Galliano on top. I thought I saw this drink on a menu in a local Italian restaurant, but it had another name. In Italian.