Horse racing history and great steaks abound at the Arcadia Derby – San Gabriel Valley Tribune

The first real, proper, full, throwback to the Before Times meal I had as we started to emerge from the pandemic — like groundhogs checking their shadows — was at The derby because, well, it’s the Derby.

It opened its doors in 1922, shortly after the great influenza pandemic of 1918. Thus, it can be said that it links two of the world’s worst health crises since the bubonic plague of 1347 to 1352. This caused the death of about 75 million people. 200 million – in a world with a population of around 475 million before this plague began. (Let’s hope we never see numbers like that again!)

Arguably, the Derby – which celebrates its 100th anniversary next year – also connects many other eras here in Southern California. It connects a time when moguls, movers and shakers showed up after racing their horses at Santa Anita, just down the road, with a time when the Derby is a destination for all of us. It links, as a corollary, the age of the studio system, to the age of Netflix and Hulu. It also connects a time when beef was eaten big and bold – where eating meat marked you as a success to be reckoned with – with an age when salads and vegetables finally get the respect they deserve. But not too much; no one would ever confuse the Derby with a vegetarian destination.

And I certainly wasn’t the only one who needed a homecoming. On a recent weekend night the place was packed, the bartender kept moving, the wait outside for a table was considerable. People who had eaten take-out and thawed Trader Joe’s food for most of the last year needed their bacon-wrapped filet mignon and prime rib. The Cobb salad was just begging to be eaten. The prawn cocktail was as rosy and tempting as ever, served with “our homemade tangy cocktail sauce” – because what we were missing during our hermit existence was “spicy”. Bring on the “spiciness” – we are ready!

If you’ve never been to the Derby, give yourself a little extra time to peruse the memories and inhale the great sense of… history. The story that really began in 1938, when the greatest jockey of his age – George “The Iceman” Woolf – bought what was originally The Proctor Tavern, with the dream of becoming “a place of gathering for jockeys and racing fans…a source of retirement income that would allow him to look back on his Hall of Fame career…”

Which might have been the case if George Woolf hadn’t died in 1946, when he was ejected from his mount, Please Me, during the fourth race at Santa Anita. George had left. But the Derby lives on as a monument – it greets you like an etched glass image on the door as you enter, surrounded by these words: “The home of George ‘The Iceman’ Woolf.”

Related: 10 Classic San Gabriel Valley Dining Experiences

The display cases are filled with the history of horse racing in Santa Anita. And there are items on the menu that are as venerable as those memories – a menu that follows the formula well established over the years. These cocktails are popular as you browse through the long list of culinary options. Dishes under headings that include “At the Starting Gate”, “Seabiscuit Favorites”, “George Woolf’s Steak Winners” and “Photo Finish”.

  • There is a lot of horse racing history on display at the Derby. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

  • A likeness of George “The Iceman” Woolf is on the door of the Derby. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

  • The “World Famous” Derby, which dates from 1922, is a tribute to the pleasures of American cuisine of yesteryear, tasted in a veritable museum of equestrian memorabilia. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

“At the Starting Gate” is, of course, appetizers. There’s a new section of “Handhelds” – burgers, sandwiches and tacos. But my bet for the most popular menu section is the “Three Course Triple Crown Menu”. Even at $55 per person, it’s a pretty good deal. There are seven entrees to choose from – including the “signature” crab cakes, in which bits of crab can actually be discerned (rarer than you might think!), served with a very tasty roasted corn relish, garnished avocado and a spicy aioli. for soaking (a decidedly modern touch). Shrimp cocktail, French onion soup, house salad or fried calamari aren’t modern at all – although the crispy Brussels sprouts with balsamic reduction are certainly not from the era.

As for entrees, the section is affably venerable – prime rib ($5 more), bone-in rib-eye (same), breaded chicken, bacon-wrapped tenderloin, shrimp and crab-stuffed salmon, Chilean sea bass fried (well this one is more recent). Not newer is Bread Pudding, Berry Cheesecake, Chocolate Tuxedo Mousse Cake. You can put a blue cheese crust on your entree, if you like. There are also Foster bananas, which really take us back in time.

This is a Smithsonian of racetrack dining. I didn’t wear a tie or a jacket – few did. But I felt like I had to. It’s that kind of place – it would be good to dress for the food.

Merrill Shindler is a freelance food critic based in Los Angeles. Email [email protected]

The derby

  • Evaluation: 3 stars
  • Address: 233 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia
  • Information: 626-447-2430;
  • Food: Classic American Steakhouse
  • When: Dinner only, Wednesday to Sunday; sunday brunch
  • Details: full bar
  • Atmosphere: Dating back to 1922, the “World Famous” Derby is a tribute to the pleasures of American cuisine of yesteryear, tasted in a veritable museum of horse racing memorabilia, taken from the nearby Santa Anita racecourse. While waiting for a table, peruse display cases filled with racing ephemera, a reminder that this has long been the sport of kings…and the king of sports!
  • Prices: About $75 per person
  • Cards: CM, V
  • What do the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth the trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, if not outstanding. Worth the trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A great place to go for a meal. Worth the trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic.) 0 (Honestly not worth it write on it.)

Dino S. Williams