Listen to Marty at the Sky Room
You begin by handing your keys to a person whom you hope is the valet. You made the assumption because he was the only guy standing in the alleyway next to a sign that reads, "Valet, $7." That he hands you a ticket stub before he drives away in your car provides some measure of reassurance. Then you walk up a short flight of red-carpeted stairs and pull open a pair of creaky doors. You find yourself in a creepy, chandelier-lit hallway seemingly birthed from a scene in The Shining.
At the far end, an ancient elevator opens, and out comes a young attendant in a dress shirt who asks if you have reservations. Yes. During the short ride up to the top floor, the charming chap recites stories about the place. The building you're in is the historic Breakers Hotel, he says, built in 1926 when the Long Beach waterfront was practically steps from Ocean Boulevard—not a mile away, as it is today. In its heyday, the restaurant hosted Clark Gable and John Wayne as customers. Elizabeth Taylor and her first husband, Nicky Hilton, spent their honeymoon in the penthouse suite. Today, the building is a retirement home, but the Sky Room is still in operation.
The elevator opens onto a cramped corridor in front of a hostess podium. She leads you past a small bar and dance floor that would've been chic when Miami Vice was still on the air. Your destination is a room still farther in, where wide windows overlook Long Beach Harbor. If the Art Deco scheme has gone a little stale, you excuse it because of the view. You spot the iconic Wyland mural straight ahead, Queen Mary in the distance and the ocean beyond. When the sun sets, the room glows red from accent lighting that takes over as illumination. Marty, your server, warns you to be wary of the steps that separate the two-leveled room. He's worked here 14 years, he says, and he still stumbles on them.
Apart from the busboys, Marty, you discover quickly, is the only server. He's the kind of waiter who doesn't dote on you because he has to; he does it because he is genuinely this caring. He is like the Jewish mother you never had, a man who puts the restaurant's profit margins second to making sure you don't spend more than you have to. Try to order more than you can conceivably consume, and he'll stop you mid-sentence, especially if you mention you also want the osso bucco. "That's just too much food!" he'll say. "How about we start you off with the raw bar items you wanted, and then we'll talk."
He's this way with everyone. The canoodling couples in the room seem to know him as much as he knows them. "Are you thinking of that wine because you like sweet wines?" he asks a woman. She smiles and nods. "I'll bring out a better wine for less than that one."
Pretty soon, the Sky Room isn't about the history, the view, or even the food. It's about how Marty reminds you of simpler, kinder times. After you finish the raw bar items—which come in a plate tower that includes a half-dozen raw oysters, coin-thick slices of acid-firmed scallop, silky sheets of cured salmon and soy-dressed tuna—Marty returns; you tell him he was right to stop you when he did, that your eyes were bigger than your stomach. He nods approvingly as you scale down your order. But when you still insist you want the osso bucco, Marty cautions, "Promise to work on the scallops first, okay? Because if you're too full for the osso bucco, the leftovers will reheat nicely tomorrow; the scallops won't travel well."
To your order he lets you add the Salad de Maman because he saw the delight in your eyes when you found out it's tossed tableside, the old-school way. In the mix, there's not a single fancy green; just plain iceberg, hard-boiled egg, cucumber, radish and creamy Dijon on a plate that somehow becomes greater than the sum of its parts. An appetizer of white asparagus served with prosciutto, sabayon and a yolk-dribbling fried egg is also a revelation. The pan-seared scallops, three to a plate and perched atop pontoons of mashed potatoes with bits of lobster, eat with the fleshy chew of a tender steak—sweet in its unmolested marineness and simple in its execution.
Finally, there's the massive osso bucco, a central column of bone surrounded by tender, but not yielding, meat. Glazed in a reduced sauce thick and rich from constant coddling, the dish is resplendent with specks of its flavor-packed mirepoix and flanked by absorptive spears of skin-on potatoes. Marty, of course, is right; you're too full to eat more than a forkful. So when you ask for a box, he puts a hand on your shoulder, and with a benevolent look, he says, "You should always listen to your server."
This review appeared in print as "Listen to Marty: The Sky Room at the historic Breakers Hotel recalls the classy hospitality of old Long Beach."
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