Food is one thing; food culture is another. Ravioli is food; crispy elk ravioli is an object of food culture. It's kind of like the difference between the charcoal drawing of my daughter I paid $10 for at Disneyland in 1991, on the one hand, and Goya's portrait of the Marquis of Sofraga that I paid $10 to see at the San Diego Museum of Art, on the other. I love that portrait of my daughter and I get to keep it in my own house, as I do the can of Chef Boyardee ravioli in my pantry. For Goya, and for anything with elk in it, I have to go somewhere else.
Fortunately for me, the Tractor Room is across the street from my house at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Pennsylvania in Hillcrest. The Tractor Room is the newest venture by Andy Beardslee and Johnny Rivera of Hash House a Go Go fame and I have awaited its opening eagerly since the closure of Rice Jones, a fantastic Vietnamese place that previously occupied the space. I have heard rumors that Beardslee and Rivera sunk a cool quarter-million bucks into the remodel, and, if so, it shows. The décor is rich and inviting, a perfect blend of warm comfort and smooth semi-sophistication in which to pass a winter's night, and the cast-iron serving dishes really bring it home.
I have been there twice, the first time with a date and the second time flying solo. Both times I have been greeted heartily by a host who knows how to welcome guests. Both times I have also enjoyed outstanding service by friendly waitstaff who aren't in a rush but don't make you wait, either. That's nice.
If you plan an outing to the Tractor Room, dress for it. Don't come sloppy. Ladies, you might even want to get your hair did. You might also want to bring your credit card because it's just a tad bit on the pricey end. It's appropriately priced for what it is, but you can't just blow in with a $20 bill and expect it to stretch.
Focusing, as it does, on offering "signature cocktails" (that's "expensive drinks" to you and me) and upscale late-night dining to the downtowny set, there is no way to avoid telling the truth-by neighborhood standards, the Tractor Room's snoot factor is rather high. That doesn't bother me. I drink Maker's Mark on the rocks and slouch in my seat no matter where I go. But if you're easily put off by men in creased tan Dockers, crisp oxford cloth button-downs and deck shoes, with fresh haircuts and signs of recent manscaping plodding through a date with French-manicured girl toys in little black dresses, strappy footwear with unreasonable heels and a fur wrap, sporting voluminous updos and bespangled with bling, who make excuses to take phone calls from a girlfriend while picking delicately at a salad, well, the Tractor Room might not be for you.
What is for you, and should be for all of us, is really good food. I mentioned the elk ravioli, so let me rhapsodize befittingly about flour noodles and large dead ruminants. Oh my God, was that some good food! I could eat the Tractor Room's crispy elk ravioli exclusively for the next month and not regret it. The pasta casing was substantial without being heavy and the filling was wild without being gamey. It was outstanding.
The Tractor Room staple is the cornbread. I grew up in a house where an iron skillet of cornbread sat on the stove quite literally all the time, so I know what I'm talking about on this one. The cornbread is good. For almost everyone but me, I'm sure it's very good. You get a lot of it, it's moist and flaky with a nice golden-brown glaze on top and it goes well with just about anything. To me, and this is just me, it's a touch too sweet. I liked it nonetheless. What I really liked was the navy bean and duck soup. Now that makes you feel just right. That and some cornbread and you're just right for a long time.
I would love to opine about other things on the menu, things that include wild boar, venison and more run-of-the-mill dead critters like chickens and what have you, but I can't remember everything they serve and because, as my server was forced to tell me uncomfortably by one of the Tractor Room's owners, they haven't a copy of a menu to spare, not even to loan, as they have just opened and they have only "a limited supply." I told you the snoot factor was a bit high.
Here it is in a nutshell-don't plan on making it a hang out. It's not that kind of place and doesn't purport to be. It's a place to take a date, to show off, to eat some really good food and spend money conspicuously. You need to do that every once in a while, and if you can do so without having to go to the Gaslamp, well, why wouldn't you? Check it out. Tell me I'm wrong.
The Tractor Room opens at 5:30 Wednesday through Sunday for dinner, and at 9 a.m. Saturday and Sunday for brunch.