Black and bleu pizza - $11.95
For a group evening out in Ventura County, I attempted to steer everyone toward my favorite German/Italian restaurant, Two Guys from Italy, but was mysteriously overruled in favor of the Lazy Dog Cafe, a local suburban chain restaurant that I'm sure receives a lot of its business from its proximity to the Thousand Oaks Muvico theater (other locations are in in Westminster, Orange, Irvine, Torrance, and Temecula). Good luck getting a table on Saturday night at 7:00 unless you want to hold onto a plastic buzzer for the next hour. There are few things I hate more than waiting for a table at a generic restaurant. I kind of wanted to stay home. Okay, I really wanted to stay home.
Now put all my grumping aside, because this place actually has a lot going for it. The hamburgers are unbelievable, and they'll actually cook them medium rare. For what is largely a pizza and burger place, you might be surprised to learn that they also serve braised lamb shank and cast-iron baked trout with a citrus-walnut brown butter sauce. They also serve pasta, soup, salad, Chinese food (I'm skeptical), sandwiches, and an unusual array of starters--you can get everything from hummus to sauteed eggplant to chicken wings. There's really something for everyone (they also have a kid's menu--you can guess what's on it).
Lazy Dog Cafe also wins points from me for its actual beer menu with 16 draft beers, including 5 of their own (which can be ordered as a tasting sampler totaling 3o ounces), Rogue Hazlenut Brown, Firestone Double Barrel Ale, and a rotating selection of seasonal beers. Your inner sorority girl will be happy to know that they also serve a plethora of cocktails and martinis; those who have (or pretend to have) more refined sensibilities will appreciate the long and reasonably priced wine list.
I ordered the black and bleu pizza, a thin-crusted, hubcap-sized pie topped with cajun chicken, hickory-smoked bacon, mozzarella, carmelized onions, blue cheese, diced tomatoes, and green onions. I know I enjoyed it at the time, but I should have eaten it all in one sitting because the leftovers were a soggy mess that marred my opinion of the dish. I also tried the pepperoni pizza, which is totally worth the heart attack you will definitely have if you eat that much pepperoni in one sitting. (For someone who adores pizza, I really should venture outside of the Red Baron box more often.)
Another dish I got to sample since we dined in a large group was the fish and chips. It was exactly what you'd expect it to be--thick hunks of cod, beer-battered and deep fried until golden, crispy, and dripping with grease and generously salted. If you ate the whole platter, you'd be good to go for at least a day, calorie-wise. It was delicious and paired wonderfully with my beer, but I couldn't have eaten a whole meal of it--it's just too one-note for me. But fish-and-chips lovers should be pleased.
The name of the restaurant is terribly misleading, though. Knowing nothing about the place beforehand, I assumed it was some sort of dog-friendly sidewalk cafe (but Toto, we're not in Venice anymore). In actuality, it is like an enormous Chili's, minus the southwestern tiles (for those of you well-versed in suburban restaurants, it's actually more like BJ's). And it's not the easiest place to hold a conversation, especially if you're with a large group--I could have laid down in the middle of our table for eight and there still would have been enough room for all the plates and drinks. So sit next to, not across from, the person you most like.
Two of us were out the door for only $40, and that included two entrees (with leftover pizza), a beer, some cranberry juice, and it's possible that someone may have talked me into taking a chocolate cake shot even though I am morally opposed to paying $6 for two ounces of alcohol. Maybe I was trying to prove that I can still drink like a 23-year-old.
Lazy Dog Cafe
172 West Hillcrest Drive
Thousand Oaks, CA 91360
Lazy Dog Cafe Website
Lazy Dog Cafe Menu
Sun 10am - 11pm
Mon - Thur 11am - 11pm
Fri - Sat 11am - midnight
Tuna tataki salad - $11.25
M Cafe in Culver City is one of a small chain of three macrobiotic restaurants in Los Angeles (the other two are in Beverly Hills and Hollywood). If you're not a health food nut or a vegetarian, you might be turned off by the idea of a place that only serves macrobiotic food--you won't find any refined sugars, eggs, dairy, red meat, or poultry on the menu--but the chefs have created each dish with the intention of appealing to all palettes, and in that I think they've succeeded (as long as you're the type of meat-eater who can live without a hamburger for a little while).
Most of the food is attractively arranged in well-lit display cases so you can see exactly what you're ordering. As much as I usually dislike display-case food, in this case I think it's a good idea. People unfamiliar with macrobiotic food, who aren't sure what they'll be getting into if they order barbecued seitan (a tasty meat substitute) or scarlet quinoa (a grain not unlike couscous, in this case colored and flavored with beet juice), can check it out. And my strawberry shortcake didn't have that stale flavor that's usually the bane of display case food.
But there are plenty of familiar items on the menu for the less adventurous. There are sushi rolls made with organic seafood and sold two bites at a time for $2.25 or $2.75; french fries (with shiso, nori, and sea salt) and sweet potato fries (with chili, sea salt, and lime); panini of the day; and a club sandwich (facon can't be that bad, right?).
Drink options include fresh-squeezed juices (kale lemonade, anyone? I prefer to saute my leafy greens, thanks, but my friend swears by the stuff), natural sodas, teas, mate, and--thank goodness-macrobiotic does not mean going without caffeine, so I ordered an iced coffee (it does, unfortunately, mean no milk or cream--only soy, almond, or rice milk, sorry). The coffee had the color of iced tea (I prefer the black sludge variety) but tasted blessedly stronger than it looked. There's free, self-serve water (LA County water, I presume) near the front door if you'd rather not pay for Fiji or "M Cafe Water."
Ordering is a bit difficult if you don't already know what you want since you walk in and order at the register without the benefit of sitting down and perusing a menu. There are large menus on the wall and printed ones near the cash register, but I find it hard to think on the spot, and the display case can be hard to see if the place is crowded. I had an easier time because I'd looked at the menu online beforehand. You'll get a number after you order and a server will bring your food to your table.
Strawberry shortcake - $6.25
I ordered something safe--the tuna tataki salad and a strawberry shortcake. I haven't been to a farmers market in a while and had forgotten how delicious fresh produce--creamy, sweet avocado, cucumber, mixed greens, a handful of spouts, and some marinated lotus root--can be. The marinated, seared tuna was of the quality you'd expect from a good sushi restaurant and paired nicely with the sparingly used, not-too-spicy wasabi mayo. The ponzu vinaigrette had the right balance of sweet and salty with a tinge of sour. My only complaint is that I wasn't full after eating it, but a salad is a salad, even if it is an entree.
That's where the strawberry shortcake came in. You'd never guess that it was made without refined sugar. Nothing seemed like it was missing. The cake was very light--you won't feel weighed down after eating it like you would after, say, a molten lava cake at Chili's. Not that I would know. And after such a light lunch, I was definitely hungry for a hearty meal of pad Thai that evening.
The dining room is airy, with high, open ceilings, white walls, plenty of large windows, and rustic wood floors and furniture. There are a smattering of outdoor tables, if you don't mind the sidewalk and street traffic. The glossy photo menus add a corporate vibe to a place that otherwise feels cozy, if a bit chaotic--like most places on the Westside, the tables are close together, and the space is long and narrow. The prices are pretty standard for a Westside lunch cafe, with most entrees priced between $8.50 and $11.25, but at $22 total for my salad, dessert, and coffee plus tax, there's no way I could eat here on a regular basis. The no-waiter aspect--and hence, no 20% tip--does help keep the total cost down. You can also buy their food at some Whole Foods stores.
I honestly wasn't expecting much from this restaurant, but I left quite happy with the flavors of everything and the knowledge that I'd eaten a healthy meal, even if I wasn't terribly full.
9343 Culver Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232
M Cafe website
M Cafe menu
Sunday through Thursday
9:00 am - 9:00 pm
Friday & Saturday
9:00 am - 10:00 pm