There is a distinct breed of family restaurant founded in spades across the nation between the 40s and the 50s, few of which survive, that provided a Disneyana environment where the family could dine surrounded by a Yogi Bear-era “outdoor” look: faux trees, the occasional water feature, “log cabin” woodwork, abundant taxidermy. Clearman’s North Woods Inn, in San Gabriel, is one such institution.
I happened to be passing there the other day while spending quality time with the Mom. I went to Clearman’s only once, long ago, when I was in junior high school. For reasons that will forever remain elusive I had developed a passion for miniatures, along with another girl in my class, and the two of us made plans to go–or rather, made plans for our moms to drive us–down to San Gabriel where a miniature store sold itty-bitty pieces of handpainted china for lilliputian table settings to be set in itty bitty houses. Clearman’s happened to be right next door.
My friend had been there before. “You have to get the potato with the cheese butter,” she announced. Her mom, petite as a chihuahua and as perky, leaned over the table toward my mother and I. ‘CHEESE BUTTER,” she said in a low whisper…
Now, my mom and I were passing by the Inn again, heading south on Rosemead in search of a bead store (yes, my weekend was a rager). It was late afternoon. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast. We were a bit giddy from our girls-day-out vibe. We took one look at the Inn and…the cheese butter came flooding back. Well, not the cheese butter itself, but the memory of its foamy perfection indelicately mounted atop the gargantuan spud, decades before “foam” ever began to be featured at Michelin-starred restaurants.
The potatoes have not changed, and neither has the North Woods Inn. The baroque cheesecake paintings still smile demurely from the walls; the deer still gaze down over your table through glassy eyes; the floor is still covered with the peanut shells you are encouraged to toss down there. The minatures store and its minimall have been razed, but Clearman’s sits there still, a proud, greasy reminder of a bygone era when prime rib came with potatoes the size of your head and faux log cabin walls meant you were in a steakhouse.