Spitfire Grill’s widgeon salad is for steak lovers Photo by Richard Foss

Spitfire Grill’s widgeon salad is for steak lovers
Photo by Richard Foss

Spitfire Grill is a great theme restaurant and the food is good, too

By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)

The oldest living culinary tradition in Southern California is hard to spot because it looks like something else. And I mean that literally: Los Angeles started the craze for theme restaurants. By the 1920s you could go to Cliff Dwellers Café to dine amid a Southwest Pueblo, Temple of the Sun for Aztec motifs, or to L.A.’s first film-themed restaurant, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, decorated like what was then called a lunatic asylum. L.A. also had a restaurant themed like a jail where you ate in a cell, and the wonderfully named Pink Rat Café, a Norman castle where the waiters dressed like pirates.

At all of these eateries the menu was usually steak and seafood, because back then nobody really wanted to eat the cuisine of the Anasazi, whatever meals are favored by German expressionists, or the food served in a psychiatric hospital. They wanted the scenery, not the authentic experience.

So it fits our tradition that the Spitfire Grill, the aircraft-themed restaurant across the street from the Santa Monica airport, doesn’t serve airline food — or, even worse, the food Englishmen ate during the Battle of Britain. Their big mural of Spitfires taking off outside and the posters of vintage civil aircraft and airliners within are just decoration, and are done quite artfully: having the door between the dining room and bar look like an aircraft exit is a particularly nice touch. If you have lunch on the patio, as we did on one visit, you miss the vintage feel but get a view of the real thing — that is, private planes taking off over the neighboring terminal.

The menu items are mostly American favorites given cute aircraft-themed names, some clever — the Blue Angel burger has blue cheese; the Japanese Zero has teriyaki and pineapple. As such, the merits of a restaurant are all about execution rather than concept, and three out of the four things I tried were very good.

A lunch soup and sandwich combo was a lot of food well-prepared. The soup was a decent clam chowder, and for the sandwich we picked a fresh tuna salad with plenty of celery, a dash of spices and not much mayonnaise. It was served with a substantial green salad and was a very full meal. The omelet we ordered at the same time didn’t come out as well; I had ordered a daily special of housemade chili topped with a Spanish sauce and salsa, and I presume that the chef forgot to add the chili because this isn’t a regular item. When I called the server’s attention to the fact that the omelet had no filling she was momentarily incredulous, then apologized profusely and almost ran to the kitchen to get some. She showed commendable service instincts, but as it turned out the chili made little difference — it was quite bland. The hashed browns that came with it were properly crisp, and I’d have them again with one of their other breakfasts.

The best item I had from the Spitfire Grill was on my next visit, when I ordered a widgeon salad. A widgeon is a species of duck, but no waterfowl were actually served over greens — the item was named after a type of seaplane. What I got was a green salad with artichoke hearts, topped with grilled steak and tortilla chips. The steak was marinated in something that included citrus and herbs and done to the medium-rare I requested, and it worked very well with the other flavors. I had been told that all their salad dressings were made in-house so ordered blue cheese, which is usually my favorite. Theirs was very good but didn’t really match these flavors; I’d order this with a plain salad but would pick something lighter that would harmonize better with the marinade.

I noted that most of the customers here were regulars who were greeted by name — this is obviously the café of choice for local private pilots and airport employees, and it has a small town café feel. Those who are aviation buffs will fall in love with the place on sight, and it won’t take much longer for those who just like a good meal at modest prices served in quirky surroundings.

The Spitfire Grill is open from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Full bar. Vegetarian options; menu online. Good wheelchair access. Free parking in the lot.

Spitfire Grill, 3300 Airport Ave., Santa Monica (310) 397-3455 spitfiregrill.net