Sunday, July 24, 2011

Grand Casino: Main Street, Argentina Style

Lidia Lamanna sits daily at a sidewalk café in downtown Culver City, knitting or embroidering guest towels to give as gifts. Her industrious spirit was an inspiration when I was first getting to know the city, and I would often bring my beadwork and create jewelry while sitting on Grand Casino's patio, nursing a café con leche and a couple of alfajores.

How many calories can you burn while beading?

One day, I decided to stay for dinner, and ordered the strip steak, whose simple and garlicky seasonings always remind me of the steaks my dad used to prepare. I was hooked. I've brought friends to Grand Casino since, happy to find a place that combines incredibly good food with a comfortable atmosphere. Later, I learned that Lidia was not just a crafty lady who liked to knit in Argentinian restaurants, but the owner of my favorite downtown eatery.

"It was my husband's idea," says Mrs. Lamanna of Grand Casino, which she and her late husband Frank Lamanna, opened seven years ago on Main Street. "He always liked to do something new."

The greatest thing to happen to Catholics since Vatican II: Grand Casino's tuna empanada, available - sadly - only at Lent.

The bakery - purveyor of the aforementioned alfajores and other delights - has been there since 1987, with all the baking done on-site. Lamanna, who has retired and turned over the chef's apron to her daughter Linda, says that many of the dishes are made from family recipes. The menu, which is influenced by Lidia's Austrian-Russian background and her husband's Italian tradition, posseses the additional sabor of their native Buenos Aires.

Lamanna says that while she has experienced many types of cafés around the world, the ones in Argentina most resemble the cafés of France. People from all walks of life gather on the patio at Grand Casino all week long, using it as everything from a boardroom to a breakfast nook. Artistes of all kinds share their art, as the restaurant is a cozy venue for many musicians, tango dancers, and wine tastings.

Clemente Leon, who has worked at Grand Casino for five years, says that his favorite thing about his job is, "Everything. My customers. They bring their friends."

Grand Casino's parrillada, or mixed grill. Indulging my inner gaucho, minus the funny pants we wore in the seventh grade.

People - incredible food notwithstanding - are what make the place hum. Last Monday, when David and I drove into L.A. from Phoenix, missing not only Carmageddon but yet another Arizona dust storm. I told him he had to experience Grand Casino on this visit. But as we walked in, we learned that the restaurant closes at 8 p.m. seven days a week. We must have looked pretty hungry, because once again, luck was with us: Lidia and her staff allowed us to stay and eat. We ordered the parrillada, a mixed grill for two, which we devoured with great enjoyment and extra chimichurri sauce, as the staff closed the restaurant.

I learned recently that Grand Casino will begin to stay open an hour later - until 10 p.m. - all seven days. Apparently I was not the only one who wished that my favorite escape from the L.A. grind was open later. When it first opened, people were clamoring for Grand Casino to stay open past six and serve dinner. With the restaurant being located off Culver Boulevard, the dining hub of town with trendy options on every corner, that kind of popularity is nothing to sneeze at.

"We want all the customers to be happy," says Lamanna.

It's impossible not to be happy at Grand Casino. Even when, on April 1 this year, I and about 30 die-hard customers ate our lunches with contentment both inside the restaurant and at the sidewalk tables as city workers jackhammered at chunks of Main Street right in front of the patio - no foolin'.

It's a good thing I don't taste with my ears.


  1. in the past hour i've traveled from a cookie-cutter 'burb in kansas to three mouthwatering restaurants with you and my stomach can't wait to be back in southern california. i've never had parrillada (adding to bucket list) and this place sounds great, not just for the food, but the hospitality, which so many places lack. i wish you could come out here and go food exploring before i leave! even though i poke fun at kansas, i think there are some places you'd find fun to explore.

  2. A cozy european cafe that serves slabs of sizzling meat! that's my kind of place.