Dear John’s carries the torch for classic cocktails and traditional American dining

By Richard Foss (

Steak is the name of the game at Dear John’s

Steak is the name of the game at Dear John’s

I wore a jacket and tie when I went to dine at Dear John’s not because I really had to, but because it felt like the right thing to do. The restaurant opened for business in 1967, when most people still dressed up for any meal fancier than a drive-in burger or diner breakfast.

The exterior of the place looks a lot like a dive bar, but it’s a class act inside with romantic lighting, spotless white tablecloths and a pianist in the corner. There was even someone else wearing a tie, which most contemporary Californians only do for weddings, funerals and court appearances, though since the person wearing a tie was the pianist it might have been part of his dress code. Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand both were occasional visitors to Dear John’s, and while I don’t remember hearing any of their material in the pianist’s repertoire there was much that either could have sung along with.

The menu is as old school as the environment, and all dining trends of the last 50 years have been ignored. We decided on salmon with dill, a French dip sandwich, and prime rib, with a frog leg appetizer just because it had been ages since I saw frog legs on a menu.

Those amphibians must have spent a lot of time at the gym, since the legs were very meaty but still tender, and as usual they tasted halfway between fish and chicken. Here they had been breaded with a spicy batter, fried crisp and served with tartar sauce and a very mild garlic sauce. I liked them all by themselves, but the tartar sauce improved them.

Dinner here comes with a choice of soup or salad, and one of us ordered the lentil soup while the other two had salads with house-made gorgonzola dressing. The gorgonzola was decent but used very sparingly and I almost asked for extra; the soup well-made but just a bit on the bland side. Someone else had ordered it and I only had a taste, but if it had been mine I would have asked for some hot sauce to zing it up.

In an environment like this I felt like having a classic cocktail and was gearing up for a martini before I noticed a drink called Two Blocks From Tito’s. The shout-out to their neighbor is a rebranded cranberry margarita, and they make it strong but in balance. My companions had
a gin and tonic and a glass of wine from the short list. I can’t fault Dear John’s for not offering a wide wine selection here, as this seems to be a cocktail place. It’s a family place too, and we approved of
a family whose very young child had excellent manners.

Our meals showed up and were impressively large; the salmon perched atop a pile of rice pilaf with asparagus on the side, the prime rib likewise with the baked potato that I preferred.

The salmon was the best item we had, a big and nicely cooked piece of fish topped with a subtle artichoke-dill sauce that benefitted from just a little squeeze of lemon.

The prime rib was a good-sized slab of bovine, but while this had a musky, concentrated beefiness it didn’t have a noticeable herb crust and wasn’t as tender as prime I’ve had elsewhere. Granted, the prime rib that I found superior had a higher price tag than the $27 that was charged for a large portion here, but I’d rather pay more or have a smaller portion of splendid meat. It was good for moderately priced prime rib, but you do get what you pay for.

We didn’t initially get what we paid for when it came to the French dip, which had a meager portion of meat between lots of bread. However, after we called this to the attention of the manager when he stopped by our table, he agreed and not only brought out more meat, he comped a dessert as an apology. We chose the bread pudding with whiskey sauce, which was excellent and topped with a mountain of liqueur-infused whipped cream. We couldn’t fault the dessert or the customer service.

Dear John’s has a rare attribute in the local restaurant scene — authenticity. It is exactly what it has been since it opened nearly 50 years ago, and if you like classic style you might become a regular. Even if you aren’t here every week, you might stop in just to enjoy solidly prepared food with the ironclad guarantee that they won’t blast dance music at you or roll their eyes when you want a classic drink instead of something trendy.

Dear John’s 11208 Culver Blvd., Culver City (310) 397-0276