Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!
Generally, I try to keep my writing OC-focused, but, once in awhile, an out-of-county topic jumps onto my radar. One of my very first pieces here at Weekly was about Laguna's Frank Panza, the beyond-legendary bartender at Santa Anita's Turf Club. That stately room was a bastion of old school charm and hosted the best of the best since the 1930's. Almost every Hollywood blueblood or great musician has walked its hallowed floors at one time or another. The track itself is beyond spectacular, with a gilded Prussian Blue facade, stunning view of the San Gabriel mountains and enough art-deco chic to keep ones gaze enthralled for months.
The exclusive Turf Club has been a favorite of mine for longer than I care to think about and opening day (always December 26) is one of my most beloved of holiday traditions. In 2014, I couldn't get in; there was a fishy cover story about "all the tables being reserved." I didn't get a straight answer, so I bagged the idea. "Next year," I thought.
Recent rumblings caught my ear that a group of LA-based investors and peeps in The Biz had leased the space out from Santa Anita, poured a few million bucks into a remodel and reopened the now-defunct Turf Club as a premium level, invite-only, special events space and night club. Okay, that's good–right? The economics of horse racing have changed and those huge attendance days of the 80's are generally over, so maybe it's time to look at the harsh realities of paying the bills. Turf Club attendance had been waning and the room needed a remodel for sure anyway. So I decided to do some footwork and see what had become of one of my favorite haunts. I mean, how bad could it really be?
The Kubler-Ross model of grief and loss–the five steps by which people process such emotions–seems a fitting way to describe what I found out and felt about it, so here goes:
My first response to the rumor mill was denial. Why would someone close the Turf Club to the public? It just had a bit of tarnish on it, much like an old-time Hollywood actress waiting for her triumphant return to the silver screen. Could it be the space was underperforming financially and the track wanted to dump it? Certainly, new management would want to keep the Turf Club vibe and give it a respectful upgrade, much like the recent and epically tasteful remodel of Disney's Club 33.
A visit to their website quickly moved me into anger. I thought I was going to puke when I saw their slickly-produced promo video that popped up, featuring a slew of ridiculous neo-hipsters of the very worst sort and Jeff Goldblum banging away on the piano. (Note: Mr Goldblum is not vintage-Hollywood royalty). It was most assuredly not reflective of the grand heritage of the room. "This will not stand!" said I. "This affront to all things decent cannot be possible!" So off I rode in a cloud of dust like Don Quixote to tilt at this insulting and ominous windmill.
Two days later I managed to get through to someone in media relations at the track. They put me directly in touch with the GM of the newly named Chandelier Room. She was so nice and oh-so-syrupy sweet. "We get it," said she. "The Turf Club members and long-time track regulars are upset and we are, honestly, trying to make it work. We also spent a lot of money to make the room much more accommodating while trying to honor the rich history of the space." This is when I slid into bargaining.
"What a dick I am! Why do I always assume that people are gonna' make the worst of things? It can't be THAT bad." The GM explained that they are, in fact, open to the public on big race days and she would comp two of the 65 dollar tickets if I wanted to come on up for a visit and enjoy one of their swanky chef series events. It was a very gracious and seemingly genuine offer, so wifey and I decided to make a day of it.
It took awhile to find the entrance. It was pretty confusing and didn't really need to be. It seemed even longtime Santa Anita employees were unfamiliar with the new layout. When we finally found the elevator, took it up and got that first look, well, that was when the depression set in: "Oh man, I got duped. Bamboozled, even!"
The room did look more contemporary: they had opened the joint up quite a bit and a coat of fresh paint helped. But they had taken the admittedly antiquated charm and turned it into a B-team Vegas hotel lobby: lots of unnecessary flat screens and bougie couches. The open middle space was taken up by a behemoth obelisk consisting of four large booths with two people sitting in each one–a classic faux-pas in the restaurant world that I see all too often, but one that makes the room seem more full when there are not that many bodies in there.
The bar actually looked spectacular with its refresh, lots of slick-looking burnished brass and a swanky new bar top.
But instead of the usual staff dispensing wisdom and tall tales (as well as drinks,) there was a row of cartoonish mixologists jiggering out "crafted libations" and bruising mint. The kicker was the DJ playing the very worst of Coachella pool party-adjacent mash-ups that not only boomed to a deafening level inside the room but could also be heard two floors down and out onto the paddock. Clearly, there was no regard for "honoring the rich history of the space," despite the GM's earnest protestations, and it appeared the crowd could not give two fucks about horse racing. The Chandelier Room might be a nice venue for a wedding reception but, at least on this day, it was basically a dance club for idiot LA party trolls and their cocaine-cowgirl dates. Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Lana Turner, Ava Gardener, Frank Sinatra and the rest of the endless list of Hollywood upper crust that once enjoyed the sport of kings there must be flipping over in their graves–deservedly so. Wifey almost cried and I barfed in my mouth a little.
The next day, acceptance set in. All good things do, in fact, come to an end and some suffer worse fates than others. The Turf Club's, though, was particularly grisly. They didn't just destroy it, they razed it…right down to its soul. "Destroy" implies there are bits left, like the shells of burned-out buildings after a carpet bombing: recognizable to former inhabitants, with enough bricks laying around that they can be rebuilt. What happened to the Turf Club is reminiscent of the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC when the Roman General Scipio destroyed the city to its foundations and allegedly plowed the earth with salt as a symbolic gesture of total desolation. The Turf Club room still exists but what made it special–its spirit, anime, mojo, whatever you want to call it–is forever gone. And I'll never see 'ol Dick Van Patten clutching a racing form and teetering around there with that glazed-over look on his face ever again.
I worship Santa Anita and would absolutely never, EVER intentionally say anything to hurt the track. I wish the new venture all the luck in the world, especially if it's gonna help support one of the most venerated of courses, arguably the most stunning home to horse racing anywhere. The changes aren't all bad, but they could have been more tasteful/less cliched and they seriously need to ship the new crowd there back to Douchebag Island en masse and tout de suite.
If you never went to the Turf Club to experience and cherish its former glory, you really missed out. As for The Chandelier Room: it's a perfectly fine cookie-cutter venue pandering to those that don't know any better, but does still have that great Turf Club view. Book a party there! Plan a special event! Have a corporate gathering! Be up in the club! Just bring your wallet–and leave your heart at home.