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Restaurant Reviews and Commentary from Karen Salkin

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Cal Phil Festival on the Green

Summer in Los Angeles is always special to me because it’s the season that I first arrived here from my native Brooklyn. I’ve gotten that same happy feeling every summer hence, despite the heat that I’ve come to eschew.

And now that I’ve grown-up a tad, I realize that it’s not just about the UCLA program I attended then (okay, more like CRASHED back then), but about all the special events that come with the season. I love that I’ve gotten to share some of this year’s special events with you. And here’s another one:

The California Philharmonic plays a series of summer concerts at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia, a place I had never heard of before it was recently called to my attention. More shockingly, my musical friends had never been aware of this concert series!

My whole life, I’ve been a fan of classical music because I was a ballet dancer and that’s what we danced to. (I also loved Broadway musicals and, actually, music in general.) But I never understood the attraction of symphony concerts alone. The music was always spectacular in person, but I needed something visual to go along with it. [I know that I used the word “music” four times in this one paragraph, but even my thesaurus doesn’t have any other choices for it. So, sorry ’bout that.]

When I was a young teen, my mother subscribed to a concert series at Lincoln Center, and knowing how I felt, offered to take my sister alone. Well, there was no way I was going to allow my sister to have my mother to herself six times a year, so I opted in. I figured I’d entertain myself somehow, and right I was.

It’s obnoxious to say, but for my visual enjoyment, I walked the empty lobby, with the music streaming in, and looked at myself in the myriad of full-length mirrors. As embarrassing as it is to admit, I loved doing that, especially since I had just embarked on a junior modeling career.

If I caught my reflection in a mirror by accident, and didn’t realize it was me at first and found myself wondering just who that girl thought she is, I knew I looked good (when I caught on) because I was jealous of myself.

The other thing I did was bring a pad and write letters because theatres just dim the house lights for concerts as opposed to shutting them altogether for other types of shows.

The best part of the day, of course, (even more than admiring myself, as hard as that is for some to believe) was the pre-concert lunch of burgers, a basket of thin, crisp fries and chocolate mousse at O’Neals Baloon. (And yes, I’m spelling “Baloon” correctly, in this case. It had been “Saloon,” but the city banned alcohol-conjuring names like that and they didn’t want to invest in a new sign, so they just changed the “S” to a “B.”)

All this childhood glee came rushing back to me when I attended the Cal Phil Festival On The Green last week. No, there weren’t any mirrors and I don’t think I would have been thrilled with my image nowadays anyway. Okay, maybe just my hair and legs.

But the event combined my other great Lincoln Center experiences of a fabulous meal and wonderful concert, this one featuring show tunes with guest vocalists Bets Malone and Stan Chandler. (And, though there were no mirrors, the first half takes place while it’s still light out, so you can write during it.)


Here’s how it works: The concert is called for 7:30PM, but gates open at 5:30 for picnicking and such, with live jazz on a back stage, to boot. There are seating choices in several prices, ranging from bring-your-own-blanket to hosting a table of ten!

I want to try all options, eventually, but I started with a table. Luckily for me, and all of us, actually, there are still four more concerts this summer, so I can get to try all the possibilities. Check the website below for details. (Of the concerts; not of my plans to attend them!)

I went with just one friend, Aris, but were joined for part of the evening by another guy, David. I noticed that the most rollicking tables had several people.

I was fascinated by how each table accented the evening. I was dying to grab a mike and interview the occupants. All added their own touches and made everything look so inviting.


The venue provides floor-length tablecloths, which is a welcome appointment. I made copious notes, but am narrowing down the list of “to bring” suggestions to these: candles, flashlight, sun umbrellas, bug repellent, cameras, binoculars, sani-wipes, baskets on wheels, ice, and most of all, Depends, if you plan to drink a lot and don’t want to have to use a Port-A-Potty.

My favorite part of the whole event is that smoking is prohibited, so you can enjoy your meal without fear of inhaling deadly tobacco. And, I observed that most people really did heed that rule. So, I didn’t mind too much when several tables got louder as the night, and the wine, wore on. At least I could breathe freely.

Now to the best part for me--the food. I’m sure many patrons enjoy bringing their own chow, but not I. I guess that’s why I’m a restaurant critic to begin with--I don’t want to prepare meals. For all us pampered folk, there are gourmet meals to order ahead and pick-up when you arrive. (Note--some vendors may bring extra, but you’re encouraged to order at least 24 hours ahead of time, which I did.)

On the website, (which is below), I noticed four available caterers. I was planning on ordering one meal from each, but stopped at two. Maybe next time I’ll get to the others. But I was very happy with the two I chose, which were quite different from each other. Read on.

The Arboretum 301 N. Baldwin Ave. Arcadia, CA 91007 (626) 821-3222
California Philharmonic 626.300.8200


My first call was to Robin’s Wood Fire BBQ because I felt that barbecue fare was appropriate for the occasion. Though you order ahead of time, they don’t cook your food until you get there, which is a great idea. Nobody wants meat that’s been pre-cooked and sitting around in the heat.

All the meals come with a roll and butter, incredible garlic mashed potatoes, which I scarfed first thing, and perfectly cooked beans. (Beans are actually the only thing I excel at cooking, but wouldn’t have had time to do. I was happy to find such good ones on-site.)

The Rosemary Garlic Wood-fired Chicken was perfectly seasoned and juicy, and the Santa Maria Tri-Tip Steak lived up to its billing of “succulent.” The portions were man-sized, which was good, since I had two men with me, and an appetite to match theirs.

The only disappointment was the Death by Chocolate Cake. It was very dry, and tasted possibly stale. At least it was indeed “Enough for 2,” as was stated on the menu. It was actually enough for five, but no one wanted it after one bite. On the other hand, the Real Good Carrot Cake was super-moist and delicious! Go figure.

Robin’s Wood Fire BBQ 395 N. Rosemead Blvd. Pasadena 626-351-8885



This was the second place I called, still planning on getting a little something from all four. But everything changed when I talked to the very accommodating Jacob in Catering. He said that although there’s a specific limited menu on the website for the concert series, we can order off Bristol Farm’s website. When I saw just how mouth-watering their picnic basket looked, I realized that this was the way to go. And I’m thrilled that I did.

They have a deal where, if you order two meals, you can get them in a picnic basket for just a few dollars more. Beside how special the actual presentation is, I just felt so much better walking in with a basket than with plastic bags. I practically skipped across the lawn.

Also, this is a basket worthy of Toto! I felt like his head would pop out at any second. I hope I’m brave enough to carry Clarence, The Singing Dog to an event in it at some later date. It actually looked just like the picture that I saw of it on their site, which is rarely the case with any product.

The food came in clear plastic containers, wrapped with a satin ribbon! How festive is that?! And napkin-wrapped utensils and plastic mini-goblets were included, as well. Everything here was mouth-watering. Aris had the poached salmon with dill sauce, and was pleased to have such a healthy meal at a concert.

I tried the filet mignon, which was delicious, though served cold, as I believe all the choices are, which I’m never a fan of. I like my food like I like my men--hot, hot, hot. (In high school, I was the only one who bought hot lunches; all the other cool kids brought sandwiches or salads from home. I just couldn’t eat a cold meal.)

The accompaniments more than made up for the temperature, though. Each entrée had a side of creamy shell pasta salad, a roll and butter (individually wrapped, of course, which is a stroke of genius, as my one from Robin’s got all messy in the dish with the beans and potatoes), and the most gorgeous berry combination.

I brought some of those home to Mr. X (I always want an extra opinion, though he’s not thrilled that I make him try stuff), and he said the strawberries were so good, they reminded him of ones he had when he was a kid. I never like strawberries on their own (sans cream--I must be British!), but his assessment made me try them, and I was transported, too.

The funny thing is that the next day, he asked me if I could find out from whence the caterers got them. I was thinking of whom I could call and ask. And then I realized the caterer was Bristol Farms! They got them from their own store! No detective work necessary, which is a tad disappointing.

When I noticed that they carried gourmet cupcakes, too, I had to try a couple because I rail against the recent rage of cupcake purveyors. While the double chocolate was just as okay as all the rest in the world, the German Chocolate was delectable. The best thing about them was that they were hidden away in the basket and I didn’t discover them until I got home! As much as I’m into sharing, I was even more pleased to keep these desserts all to myself. It was a perfect ending to a marvelous evening.

Bristol Farms 606 Fair Oaks Ave. S. Pasadena 626-441-5450

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