This busy new restaurant in Sierra Madre has a fanatical following to judge from the crowds at dinner (and to a lesser extent, lunch). The space, formerly Lozano, which itself morphed from down-home Mexican to haute Southwestern (with a concomitant change in decor) is lovely and modern, open to the backlit bar, with exposed concrete walls, a longitudinal mirror that opens up the dining room and high, industrial ceiling, all dimly lit in the evening, sunny and open during the day. Wistaria’s not too noisy either, considering all those hard spaces, and with comfortable booths and outdoor seating (not to mention that full bar with requisite mixology-style cocktails and local beers), it’s got great atmosphere and energy, adding a lot to the nightlife along Baldwin. The welcoming staff strives to seat everybody, get the food out promptly, and be good hosts.
This place has much going for it—but I wish the food was memorable. What I have had there (and I’ve been three times) I have kind of enjoyed, as have my companions. But with the exception of one clear hit (the chicken salad sandwich) and one miss (the overly acid salad on the same plate), I honestly can’t remember what I ate—fishy dishes, I want to say… I remember sea trout was involved, and once sea bass; risotto that was more tomato-y than cheesy, and the waiter did not think that risotto preceded by arancini (crispy, with melty cheese inside) was over-much the same thing (another waiter in another restaurant might have raised a gentle eyebrow).
There was a nice salad with bleu cheese and lardons, and the mac ‘n cheese is good. My kids liked the hamburger and the fish and chips, though an HTP colleague who had the same dish another night complained that the dish “needed the tartar sauce; the fry was bland but otherwise well executed, and it came with good potatoes. I thought the oil might have been used one too many times. The fish itself was tasteless.” He goes on about his also less-than-exceptional meal: “The pork chop was juicy and succulent, though in the dim light (we asked for more candles but they never came), I do not notice all the fat on it, and I proceed to eat some of it. It comes with a serviceable polenta and a big mound of dreadfully undercooked kale.”
The point is you are not here for the food, but for the enjoyment of somebody’s company, the pleasure of being out for dinner in a convivial restaurant, in a fantasy small town that is one of the great pleasures of living in the San Gabriel Valley.
Wistaria’s proprietors also own South Pasadena’s Mike & Anne’s, and theirs seems to be a formula that works: Find a large space in a town that is well-heeled but underserved, restaurant-wise. Create an unfussy, clubby restaurant with a medium-palate, medium-to-high price point, craft a nice-looking space and a not-too-adventurous menu, cook competently, and sit back and watch the crowds roll in. Not a bad formula, but not an overwhelmingly exciting one either. It’s too bad—I want a menu to match my mountains. But Sierra Madre will have to wait awhile, again, for that.
Wistaria Restaurant & Bar. 44 N. Baldwin Ave., Sierra Madre, 626.355.3155, wistariarestaurant.com. Modern American. B & L Thurs.-Sun., D Tues.-Sun. Full bar. AE, MC, V. $$ – $$$$