On the next occasion where it happens to be a perfect Southern California day, and you're moseying along the unpolished lower stretch of Venice, past vendors of jewelry, art, love, and hemp artifacts, past examples of the ripped and the haggard, dodging rollerskates and peeking into freak shows, and you come across the red-and-white awning, take a break and get in line at the door.
There is a bar inside, noisy and neoned and pool-tabled, but your focus is to smell the ocean air a little longer, so you wait for a table on the patio, under arches and columns with bas-relief faces looking bemusedly downward.
It isn't that the Sidewalk Café is a swirling tidepool of culinary brilliance and innovation. It's that it's an icon, sprouting from the fabulously literate and independent Small World Books next door. The building dates back to the Abbot Kinney days, replete with bootlegger tunnels and beatnik artist studios. Kerouac crashed here, I believe.
They are, however, well-versed in their alcohol. They serve greyhounds here! Grapefruit juice and gin, in a lowball glass. Also try the Mississippi Mimosa, which adds a touch of Triple Sec to the champagne and OJ. For our late-afternoon purposes, however, Bianca and I like the Sidewalk Summer Tea: sweet tea and lemonade. And vodka. You'll need two pairs of these to get properly on the road* to toasted.
Bianca: I feel like I should be fanning myself on the veranda.
There's lots of habitual bar food, normally a beery afterthought in other joints. The Grilled Cajun Shrimp Skewers, despite their trendy name, are good, firm and snappy and fingertip-staining, riotous with herb butter and a paper tub of vinegary, Tabascoan red pepper sauce. They aren't large or many, so consider two.
Also in the realm of the familiar is the Calamari Basket, brittle puffs of amber, with a chunky tartar sauce that Bianca lets me have because she dislikes tartar sauce, and also... kids, let me tell you about a concoction called cocktail sauce, and how we adults love it so, while laughing over our martinis. It's a classic, horseradishy enough to bring memories of Mom and Dad's parties.
The Café keeps its literary roots, and names its Bookshelf Sandwiches for books and authors, a theme of which I always approve: you can get the Hemingway, the Odyssey, the Thesaurus, the Larry McMurtry, et al.
Since I recently reread Slaughterhouse-Five** I zero in on the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It's a fine mess, a California-style burger with a superb bite, not nearly enough bean chili (So it goes), a schmear of thousand-island, onions and cheese. You get the sense that this taste, this intellectually escapist vibe, would have been the same fifty years ago. The fries next to everything you get can be big-plank style or a thin, seasoned heap.
It's still late afternoon and we're still working a quartet of Summer Teas through our systems, so I get a slice of Key Lime Pie. It's not pretty. It's messy and unkempt, just like an ideal Venice lifestyle; thankfully it's banana-yellow instead of green, and sour as a spinster aunt, causing our tongues to bang around dingdingding like a pinball machine.
Try the Sidewalk Café as the sun dips behind the ugly cement bunkers into the Pacific. You'll remember why you're here.
* No, that wasn't a Kerouac reference. Or was it?
** I would totally try a sandwich called the Kilgore Trout.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), American, Pizza, Santa Monica/Culver City, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs, Seafood )
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