For years I watched Delacey's Club 41 spiral from one of my favorite restaurants in California to an absolute dump - the kind of place you see on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (the vastly superior BBC version of the show) where Gordon is standing in the kitchen with an incredulous look on his face saying "Is this a F**king joke?"
At the beginning of the decade my friends and I would often end the evening in the bar at Club 41 listening to live music. We were the youngest people by perhaps twenty years but we didn't care: the music was good and the drinks were strong. I went there on many dates; the Caesar salad was not the best I've ever had, but it was my favorite. There was something indisputably cool about having it made tableside and piled high onto your plate. The happy hour was the best in town and two or three drinks and a couple plates of food always cost less than twenty bucks. If you didn't have a reservation on a weekend night you probably weren't getting in.
Then, for years, for whatever reason, the quality went to hell. The happy hour disappeared. There was never live music. (Not that that mattered, as there was never anyone in the bar to hear it.) Most of the menu items I liked were usually "sold out," and they starting chipping away at that perfect salad. First they no longer coddled the egg at the table. Then they stopped grinding up anchovies and instead used a paste. The final time I ate there, in August of 2007, I waited half an hour before asking the server when my salad was coming, at which point she brought out the cart with the lettuce on it and the dressing already completely made.
So it came as absolutely no surprise when Club 41 shut it's doors for good. I viewed it in the same way I viewed my grandmother, who died after years of Alzheimer's: I'll always love what it was, but it hadn't been what it was for many years. The space recently reopened as the Spitfire Saloon, owned by the Smith Brothers. (Parkway Grill, Crocodile Cafe, Arroyo Chop House, etc.) I have been eating at their restaurants for over half my life. I like all of them (although in all honesty I can't say that I love any of them.) My friend and I recently went there for lunch.
We started with an order of sweet onion rings. These were very good: huge pieces of sweet onion in a crispy batter. The "spitfire" barbecue sauce they were served with was atrocious. I have eaten perhaps 500 different barbecue sauces in my life, and this was certainly among the top ten worst. As best as I could tell it was tomato paste and brown sugar. I hoped it was not the same sauce that would be served on my "pulled bbq chicken sandwich."
Unfortunately, it was. My friend had been deciding between this pulled chicken sandwich and the lobster roll, so I suggested we get one of each and share. The chicken was very good and so was the bun. Unfortunately, it was almost impossible to get past the cloyingly tomato-paste sweet sauce. Perhaps it is possible to order this sandwich without the sauce, in which case it might be exceptional.
The sauce was the only downside to the meal, however. As the side accompanying my sandwich, I chose mustard slaw. Years ago I fell in love with the mustard slaw at Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous in Memphis, and I have been chasing a slaw as good as that ever since. I have not found it, but this was as close as I have come in the Pasadena area. I put some on the sandwich and it even muted the taste of the sauce.
The lobster roll was outstanding. The meat was delicious and the aioli on the sandwich did not drown it, a common problem with West Coast lobster rolls. My friend had selected the shoestring potatoes to accompany the sandwich, and I took more than a few. They were great. Amazingly, this sandwich was only $12.95. (Offhand, I cannot think of any place west of I-95 where I have paid less than $20 for a lobster roll.)
I am sure I will return to Spitfire again. I did not love it but it was a good time, and any place that serves me mustard slaw, sweet onion rings, and Coney Island Cream Soda deserves more than one visit.