[Note: The official name of the restaurant is Clearman's Galley. But in all honesty, I don't believe I have ever heard a single person call it that.]
One night early in the decade some friends and I watched a big Lakers playoff game while we had dinner at The Boat. The place was packed past capacity and everyone was loud. I do not remember how many beers or slices of cheese bread I had that night, but it's safe to guess it was a lot. I had a purple J Crew shirt that I wore for every big game in those days. It never let me down and, though it was stained with cheese bread that night, it came through again. The final seconds of the game ticked down, the Lakers won, I hi-fived more strangers than I ever have before or since, and got myself another schooner of beer. I never knew me a better time and I guess I never will.
And then I never went back. I got a little older and less tolerant of drunken crowds. The Lakers stopped winning championships. (I ruined the purple shirt in the wash that winter and the next spring the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs for the first time in four years. I'm not saying it's because I ruined my purple shirt.... well, yes, I am. My bad.) I fell into a routine of eating most of my restaurant meals in west Pasadena. Friends and I would talk about taking a group trip to eat at The Boat but somehow we never ended up straying too far from Old Town.
By the time Elizabeth moved to California and I got around to showing her places I loved, The Boat was closed, torn down to make way for a Kohl's department store, the same bland building that exists in 1,058 other locations around the country. The space where the red Alaskan mail boat - something truly unique - had existed my entire life was now just the backside of a department store. There is a metaphor for something depressing there. (The last lines of Bill Bryson's autobiography sound more elegiac with each passing year: "Imagine having a city full of things that no other city had. What a wonderful world that would be. What a wonderful world it was. We won't see its like again, I'm afraid.")
Earlier this year I heard that The Boat reopened in a bigger, slick new building around the corner. But I didn't have much desire to go. It would be like someone telling me King Arthur's Pizza reopened, only now it's in the Arcadia mall and they don't have swords and axes hanging on the walls. When the physical makeup of a place is so integral to its greatness, how can you change locations?
Then, last spring, my mom and I went to North Woods Inn, just north of the new location of The Boat, and I realized that maybe it wouldn't be so bad. It looked like it had retained some of its charm. There was a boat out in front of the building - a smaller boat than before, true, but it was still a boat. There weren't any neon signs or attempts at modern architecture. It looked like simply a larger, cleaner version of what it used to be. I decided that eventually I would return, although I was in no hurry. While running errands with Elizabeth on Saturday, I suggested we try The Boat for lunch.
As soon as I walked in I immediately liked the new place. It's massive - I didn't take a picture of the main dining area but I would guess it can seat at least a couple hundred people - and ringed with flatscreen TVs. There is an attractive bar along one side of the room and the same old menu board suspended over the line in which you order food.
The place was packed. This came as no surprise; there were three football games on and several large groups of people watching them. We waited in line for about ten minutes, the line moving much more efficiently than I remembered it. Although it's possible I'm just not as grumpy as I used to be. I ordered a hamburger and blue cheese salad, Elizabeth ordered the fried shrimp dinner. My burger and salad were handed to me within 30 seconds and we got a number for her shrimp, with the explanation they would be brought out to us within a couple minutes. We paid for our food in the cafeteria-style line and took seats near the front of the restaurant.
The section we were in was less crowded, separated from the main dining area by a row of glass cases displaying different kinds of ships (or, you could say, boats.) Each case had a description of what kind of ship is displayed. Several older men were wandering around studying each case. I got up and took a look, and picture, of the Mississippi River stern-wheeler. Ever since I was a kid and first read Mark Twain I have been in love with this kind of boat. My favorite museum in the country is the Mississippi River Museum, on Mud Island in Memphis, due in no small part to the fact they have a cool replica of a river boat that you can stroll on. (Although their exhibits on the history of the Delta Blues are pretty amazing, too.) There are three American things I not only really want to do in my life, but feel I have to do: see the Midnight Sun Baseball Game, be in New York for Christmas, and go on a Mississippi Riverboat cruise.
By the time I was done looking at the boat, Elizabeth's shrimp had arrived, and I sat down to eat my burger. (She'd told me to go ahead and eat, but I like to be chivalrous once in a while. That was my attempt for 2009. And probably 2010 as well.) I'd forgotten how much fun these are to eat. They are not the best burgers you'll ever eat - not even close, actually - but they may well be the messiest, covered with Thousand Island dressing and The Boat's chili sauce. The chili is relatively bland by itself, but it complements the burger well. The burger always falls apart before it's done and the last of it inevitably has to be eaten with a fork, but I never mind. The blue cheese salad was great, as always.
Elizabeth's fried shrimp were outstanding. They were a little on the small side (the breading-to-meat ratio was higher than ideal) but they were perfectly fried: crispy and not overcooked. They were piled on top of a massive amount of fries. Even though I helped her with the potatoes, we couldn't finish them.
We both really enjoyed our lunch. I was sure that the reopened Boat was going to suck, that it was going to be a tinny echo of what it used to be. I have rarely been so happy to be mistaken. In the aforementioned musings of Bill Bryson, he wonders what it would be like to have the now defunct movie palaces of his youth still open, yet upgraded with digital projections and state-of-the-art sound systems. I kind of feel like that's what they've done with The Boat. They managed to retain a lot of the charm of the original and still make it a thoroughly modern place. It's almost enough to give you hope for the future of restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.