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Restaurants & Bars 2

Saturday in Ventura - Busy Bee and Jonathan's / J's Tapas

Will Owen | Dec 28, 200902:20 PM

The day after Christmas, the two of us and some friends took the 9:00 train from LA to Ventura for the day, just because we like trains and we like Ventura... and we dearly love the Busy Bee Cafe, where as intended we fetched up right at lunch time. Now, this place looks like one of those fake '50s diner/malt shop things, but it really IS an oldish diner/malt shop (opened '63) that's been updated just enough to please picky tourists. The menu is totally authentic, right down to the fact that it's all pretty cheap, and this time I was determined NOT to get the patty melt yet again (it is very, very good), but finally to try the chicken fried steak. I went for the breakfast version, which comes with three eggs, potatoes and toast or biscuit. I picked hash browns and biscuit, neither one outstanding, though the biscuit did win me some extra gravy. The CFS itself was the thickest one I'd ever had, about half an inch, with a good crunchy crust on it and a good meaty flavor - a real winner - and paired up very nicely with the eggs and potatoes and gravy. Next time I'll have to try the alternative potatoes, which I assume are some kind of cottage fries, and I'll go back to my usual sourdough toast. But for well under $10 this is one hearty breakfast. Or lunch, in this case. Mrs. O had a short stack of pancakes; Mr. and Mrs. M got the Club sandwich and Belgian waffles, respectively, and Mrs. M's brother had a turkeyburger. Everyone enjoyed everything, and the total tab, with tax but before our usual big fat tip, was $57-something.

After a long afternoon of junk, I mean antiques stores, bookstores, odd food shops and a pause for drinks (at the Star, nice enough but with one only somewhat helpful bartender), we found ourselves an hour and a half away from train time, and decided to try Jonathan's in spite of one local's having called it "pricey". Well, Ventura pricey it might have been, but we'd be hard-pressed to do this well in Pasadena. The room itself was not going to accommodate a party of five with no reservations, so we were shown to the tapas bar next door, which shares ownership and menu. This was actually more comfortable for us, and our waitperson was as pleasant and helpful as anyone could hope for. Mrs. O and Mrs. M had to try frilly girly "martinis", while Mr. O stuck with a real one; Mr. M and his bro-in-law went for whatever you'd call a margarita made with OJ instead of lime. Waitperson doubled as bartender, and proved she could make a real martini with gin and VERMOUTH as well as the frilly ones, even though she obviously disapproved. Of vermouth, that is.

The menu had plenty of attractions, both in the openers-and-tapas side and the entrees. Mr. M went for the shishkabob, Mrs. M the hummus with filet mignon and the tabouli salad; her brother chose the chicken/sausage paella. Mrs. O asked for the grilled wild salmon; after my giant midday meal I thought I'd best go light, and had the angel hair with tomatoes and basil. This had a very fine light dressing of olive oil and a bit of lemon, and was cooked exactly as I'm always trying to cook it, perfectly tender with no mooshiness. I had a glass of a French pinot noir with it, called Hob Nob, very nice and a generous pour for $7. The salmon sitting next to me had some coins of zucchini with a strange but very good flavor none of us could identify, and excellent hand-mashed potatoes. The fish was damn good too. Nobody else offered me any tastes, though I snitched a sliver of chorizo from the paella; its owner couldn't finish it all, or else wanted the remnants for breakfast, because he got them packed to go. We all agreed that this was one of the better meals we'd had in a while, and well worth the tab. I can't tell you exactly what that was, though we were averaging around $30 apiece by my rough reckoning, which is not exactly San Gabriel Valley cheap but a whole lot less expensive and much better than some other meals we've had lately. Oh, and about 2/3 of the way through the proceedings, a guy with an upright bass and another with a guitar started playing good old jazz standards, soon joined by a woman who sang very nicely, if you like that sort of cabaret singing. Which I do.

While we're recommending things, let me mention the Amtrak Cafe's Bloody Mary. It's entirely assembled from pre-packaged and pre-measured ingredients, and it's one of the best I've had, lacking only the celery stalk to be perfect. And it's six bucks. Let's hear it for train rides!

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