4420 W Lakeside Dr., Burbank CA 91505 (map); 818-845-3731; smokehouse1946.com
Cooking Method: Char-broiled
Short Order: An old-school Hollywood steakhouse serves up a delicious burger made of, what else, filet migon!
Want Fries with That? No; these steakhouse fries are just ok. Go for the mashed or au gratin spuds instead.
Prices: Smokehouse Cheeseburger (w/fries), $12.95
Notes: Ask for a booth to get the full, Hollywood feel. Maybe you'll even get George Clooney's regular spot.
As it happens, few places can transport you back to old Hollywood faster than a steakhouse that isn't actually in Hollywood at all. The Smokehouse Restaurant sits on the borderline between Universal Studios and the Warner Bros. lot on the edge of the tony section of Burbank known as Toluca Lake. The restaurant still manages to attract contemporary Hollywood power players despite being just about old enough to collect Social Security.
The aging structure manages to squeeze a posh feel out of its dark wood accents and chargrilled menu, but invariably you'll catch a bit of kitsch that will remind you that this is, in fact, your grandfather's steakhouse. I had my first Smokehouse meal over a decade ago, but despite all the years between us, somehow I hadn't met its burger. Being that this is the season of giving, I decided to gift myself an introduction.
The Smoke House dates back to 1946 and was designed by set decorator Harry Oliver, the same man who put together The Tam O'Shanter. It seems Mr. Oliver had a knack for architecting the old-school Hollywood hangout. The Smoke House is a sea of red leather, crescent booths, and wood paneling and I wouldn't ask for it any other way.
During the Christmas Season it gets a double helping of kitschy, seasonal decoration that may very well date back to the '50s. Back then the regulars were Errol Flynn and Judy Garland. These days, George Clooney has taken over the mantle, literally; I was seated under his portrait. (I can only assume they gave me the movie star's regular booth because of how much I look like his less attractive, fatter, distant cousin.) Mr. Clooney used to work across the street at the Warner Bros. lot during the day and work the nightlife from his booth at the Smoke House. He even named his production company after his hangout. But I fear I am losing the plot a bit; down to business.
Their burger, the Smoke House Filet Cheeseburger, is pure old-school Hollywood. The standards are all there: lettuce, tomato, red onion, American cheese, and Thousand Island. The patty? Chopped filet mignon, of course. It's a flourish of excess that exceeds.
I had two during my lunch as the first came out more than a little overcooked for my medium rare preference, but both shined with flavor. At first blush, the choice of filet for a burger seems a mismatch. The fat content is just far to low to deliver on the flavor and juice I crave from my patties. As it turns out, the Smoke House manages this problem with aplomb. By that I mean they add fat and heavy dose of char. The former was noticeable even in my first overcooked burger. In the second, the much cooler center meant that the meat was buttery smooth against a beautiful crunch from the crust. They add a proper salting that makes this nearly a best-in-class burger.
There isn't any need to complicate matters with the veggies (I skipped their addition). Also there is an unwarranted helping of fried onions that comes atop your patty. Again, not needed as this is such a pleasure to eat as a beef, cheese, and bun medley. Speaking of the bun, there isn't any brioche pretension here. It's a simple, straightforward seeded commercial bun that is a great counterpoint to the high-end patty.
The fries are steakhouse-style and nothing special so I encourage you to opt for one of the "famous side dishes." If it's your first time, you are duty bound to try the cheesy garlic bread. The waiter will be sure to ask if you want some. If you haven't had it before, you do. If you have, well, I leave it to you. I opt for it one visit out of three.
Th Smoke House embraces its status as a Hollywood institution which means it has figured out the dilemma of aging. It's a constant restaurant that serves measured doses of quality and memory in the shape of a burger. That is to say, it is a gift.