The Tam O'Shanter Inn
2980 Los Feliz Boulevard, Los Angeles California 90039 (map); lawrysonline.com
Cooking Method: Grillled
Short Order: An old school eatery offers a twist on the classic burger
Want Fries with That? Since they come with the burger, but not a special treat
Notes: Lunch: Mon. to Fri., 11:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon. to Thurs., 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m., Fri. and Sat., 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m., Sunday: 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Brunch: Sun., 10:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Mondays offer a discount wine
The name Tam O'Shanter was first made famous in the eighteenth-century by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Burns, often referred to as the national poet of Scotland, plays a bigger role in your life than you probably realize. Once a year you (try to) sing along to his strange poem set to the music of a Scottish folk tune. It's about drinking to the good old days and forgetting your friends. Auld Lang Syne is Burns' legacy to most of the world, but in a little pocket of Los Angeles, the eponymous hero of Burns' greatest poem has bequeathed his name to an old-school restaurant and public house that has become an historic landmark.
The Tam O'Shanter Inn (or "The Tam") is on the east end of Los Feliz Boulevard in a neighborhood now called Atwater Village. The establishment is so rich with Los Angeles history, I barely know where to begin. Let's start at the start. In 1922 Lawrence L. Frank and Walter Van de Kamp decided to open up a bar and restaurant on a dusty strip on the Eastern outskirts of Los Angeles. Just a few years later, they'd turn to a Sottish theme and a menu of numerous hamburger steak options to save the ailing eatery. The current look and theme of "Scottish Inn" was born. At the time, the neighborhood was an almost-countryside landscape and the traditional-looking Anglo Inn seemed to fit right in. Today it sits across the street from a Costco and a Best Buy. Ah, progress.
The Old World Meets Old Hollywood
It became a hang out for the stars of the silent film era, like Tom Mix and Mary Pickford, and would continue to draw Hollywood types through the 1960s. In 1968 it underwent a name change to The Great Scot, but found its way back to the original namesake in the 1980s. Today it holds the distinction of being the oldest restaurant in Los Angeles that has been run by the same family (in the same location) from its inception. That family (or, technically speaking, families), like Burns, has likely been more a part of your life than you realize. They would, after the success of the Tam, open Lawry's Prime Rib. Their seasoned salt made it to supermarket shelves and has probably shaken its way onto your plate at some point along your carnivorous journey.
When you arrive at the Tam, you are greeted by an old-time, red phonebooth and a heavy, wood door. (You starting to get the feel for what you're in for?) Once inside, I can barely make out the host station as the dimmer switch seems to be set somewhere between date-friendly and bat-friendly. To be fair, I went for lunch and the bright, midday Los Angeles sun from which my eyes adjusted had something to do with my apparent (simulated) night blindness. It's kind of great, actually, to get the nighttime pub feel in the middle of the day. The few windows are stained glass so their colorful glow doesn't immediately betray the daytime. The walls are covered with memorabilia and swatches of family plaids. If the décor seems movie-set authentic, that's because it is: The original dining room was designed by Hollywood set decorator Harry Oliver. In Los Angeles, the simulation is real.
Once seated in a thick, wooden booth, I was greeted as "Damon" by my server, Sally, who cribbed my name from the note slipped to her by the hostess who asked for it before finding me a table. The waitstaff at the Tam wears traditional Scottish garb—cute getups that make it feel like an Epcot experience. This was, after all, Walt Disney's unofficial lunch room during the 1930s and 1940s. I have landed, it seems, in "Scot Land."
Speaking of the outfits, I should mention that the name Tam O'Shanter made its way to this restaurant by way of an article of clothing. A Tam O'Shanter became the name of the Scottish hat worn by the character in the aforementioned poem. Let me help you locate it in your mind's library: Picture a guy playing the bagpipes. Now picture his hat. Now you know the name for the hat you are imagining.
A Tale of Two Burgers
The menu offers up two options for the burger eater, aka, me. The "Hamburger...Your Way" is a pretty standard issue third (or so) pound patty served on a brioche bun and a choice of toppings. The second is called the "1922 Tam Burger." It's described as "certified Angus chuck served open-faced on toasted sourdough bread with Neuske's smoked bacon and Thousand Island dressing topped with Scotch Rarebit." The menu writer just did most of my blogger work for me, but I imagine the Scotch Rarebit part might throw you. It's basically a cheese sauce. At the Tam it consists of cheddar, paprika, nutmeg, cinnamon and beer.
As any of you who've followed my burger adventures know, when confronted with options, my answer is usually "yes." I ordered both. The "Your Way" became "my way" with some fried onions, cheddar and bacon. Both burgers were ordered medium rare. After enjoying some crusty warm pumpernickel and room temperature butter (excellent), my burgers arrived on a huge tray set down next to my table before the plates came. I know those high-end, fast food chains that are named after the Australian wilderness or gardens of olives do the same thing, but in a darkened, wood-paneled Scottish pub, the effect feels old-school. I liked it.
Let's start with the bad news. The "my way" burger lacked luster. The brioche bun was spongy in that way that makes it feel low-end or a little old. The fried onions were shoestrings of battered onions that fight your teeth like, well, shoestrings when biting into the burger. The meat was nicely charred and perfectly cooked. I also detected a good bit of seasoning in there. All in all, it felt like a miss, but then again, I chose to have those deep fried rubber bands on my burger. Maybe it was the lighting that threw me.
X Marks the Spot
Starting with bad news doesn't ensure good news follows, but in this case my clichéd construction delivers on its promise. The 1922 burger arrived with an "X" of bacon strips over the open-faced burger smothered in cheese sauce. I have to admit, I was a little suspicious of this preparation when I read it, but the first bite revealed the failings of a suspicious nature. The 1922 Tam burger was flavorful and zesty with Rarebit. The burger underneath was so nicely charred from the grilling that the beautiful carbon flavor shone straight through the cheese sauce. The interior of the burger was juicy and full of seasoning. Turns out, that seasoning comes from—you guessed it—Lawry's seasoned salt (and pepper). The thin, sourdough slice that was serving as foundation should have, by all rights, disintegrated under the morass of meat and cheese, but the hearty bread held fast and delivered a great chew.
The only downsides to the 1922 were the bacon and the open-faced-ness. The Neuske bacon was too salty against the strongly seasoned body of the sandwich. It was nice to look at, but I found my fork working around it. Did you just pick up on the second shortcoming? I said fork. It's a messy open-faced sandwich that resists your hands. I like eating with my hands and the 1922 just doesn't provide that option. That said, I like eating tasty things the most, so I would still go for the 1922 every time.
A quick note about the sides: Both burgers are served with fries and a homemade coleslaw. The fries are of the passable, fast food-style, skinny strip variety. Good, but not much more than a bit player in this show. The coleslaw left me confused. It's a red cabbage slaw that makes use of vinegar rather than gloppy mayo as its binding element. It had a nice crunch and sharp tang, but in the end, I had neither the desire to enjoy big mouthfuls, nor (what is the sign a great slaw) did I initiate that desire to use it as a topping for my burger. Also good, not great.
When the check comes, you realize that you are paying for all this ambiance. The burgers run $14—pricey for a pub, but the Tam is trying for more than that. It might not be a "fine-dining" experience, but it's certainly (use Scottish accent) a fine, dining experience.
Should Old Acquaintances Be Forgot
On my way out it seemed as though just about everyone who was working the lunch shift thanked me and said goodbye. It's a nice way to leave a restaurant and I found my mood lightened in this darkened dining room. Upon exiting the restaurant, I re-entered the daytime in a moment that felt a bit like walking out of a bar after a (too) long night to find the sun has risen.
It was a reminder that real life is what goes on outside the bar. Nights (and daytimes that are spent in darkness) are valuable because they offer us an opportunity to remember what's important in our real lives so we can pay proper tribute to a past that will always be partially forgotten. They offer us the chance to raise a glass in honor of good friends; a moment to stop and remember Auld Lang Syne.