When I was out in Dana Point for a conference earlier this year, two of my colleagues and a couple of other guys we knew decided that we didn't want to participate in the luau they were having for us as part of the conference one evening - mainly because the temperatures were in the low 60's (F) and there was a breeze coming off the ocean. When my wife and I were in Dana Point last year, we saw a restaurant in Dana Point Harbor that looked interesting, but we never did go there. The place intrigued me enough that I suggested to the group about going down the hill to go have dinner at Jimmy's Famous American Tavern.
Jimmy's in Dana Point, it turns out, is part of a now five-location (and growing) chain that was started by David Wilhelm, a long-time restaurateur who reinvented himself after the recession of 2008 and 2009 forced him to close a number of fine dining restaurants that were under his corporate ownership. Wilhelm is somewhat famous in the Orange County area for pioneering fine dining in nearby Laguna Beach. He opened his first restaurant CdM in Laguna Beach in 1978, then opened other higher-end concept restaurants such as Kachina in the early 80's, Sorrento Grill in the late 80's and a number of other restaurants that stretched from Southern California to Arizona. But he's probably most famous for French 75 and Chat Noir, two high-end fine dining establishments that were considered two of the best restaurants between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Wilhelm was responsible for opening 30 concept restaurants since the late 70's, many of which ended up under the Culinary Adventures umbrella of restaurants headed by Wilhelm. But the recession of 2008 forced Wilhelm to declare bankruptcy protection for Culinary Adventures and he ended up closing his last restaurant in 2009.
Pictured right - David Wilhelm
As he was working his way through bankruptcy, Wilhelm worked as a consultant for HMS Host, the contractor for many concept restaurants at airports and shopping malls across the nation. He was working with HMS Host coming up with a gastropub/small bites menu at one of their restaurants at John Wayne Airport in Orange County when he came to the realization that this was the way people were eating these days. Wilhelm soon found that "Regional Americana" cuisine was a real thing and something that he looked into to get back into the restaurant business.
Wilhelm partnered with a developer who was working on the new Point Loma Marina in San Diego to come up with the Jimmy's Famous American Tavern concept as the anchor restaurant for the marina. He opened his first Jimmy's in 2010, while he opened the Dana Point location in the summer of 2013 in what was the old Ristorante Ferrantelli space in Dana Point Harbor. That was followed a couple of years later with a location in Woodland Hills outside of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, and this year Jimmy's opened two more outlets - one in Brea in northern Orange County, and one in Santa Monica near the famous Santa Monica Pier. Wilhelm has said that he plans to open 16 to 18 locations of Jimmy's Famous American Tavern in Southern California within the next five years.
It was less than five minute walk down the hill to Harbor Drive and a small strip mall area that housed Jimmy's, or J-Fat's as they like to call themselves. (see map) Walking inside we found a bar area with a rectangular bar in the middle. A large cut-out lettered sign that spelled out "Famous" with back lighting was on the wall of the bar area.
We ended up getting seated at what amounted to a communal table with bench seats in a larger dining area near the back of the restaurant. With the wooden beams, concrete floor and the glass garage doors going out to the patio that were closed because of the cool night, it was sort of loud in there. We were all given menus and I ordered up a Sculpin IPA from the Ballast Point brewery down in San Diego. One of the guys ordered a bottle of wine, a Reckless Love blend from the Rebel Coast Winery, a relatively newer winery located in Rancho Palos Verdes just up the coast and south of Los Angeles. Later on, after that bottle was finished, he ordered up a bottle of Syrah from the Plumpjack Winery located in Northern California. Both bottles were a little pricey, but it turned out that we - as in me and my colleagues - weren't paying for dinner that night. I'm not much of a wine drinker with burgers, but I did have a bit of the Plumpjack Syrah later in the evening.
They had an extensive and somewhat interesting appetizer menu at Jimmy's including angus beef meatballs in a spicy Buffalo-wing sauce, whiskey-flamed shrimp with Cajun seasonings, charred Brussels sprouts, and a half-dozen spicy jalapeño deviled eggs served with applewood-smoked bacon. My colleague Matt offered to order up some appetizers and we were fine with that. He ordered a plate of the calamari. It came with a spicy remoulade sauce as well as grilled serrano peppers and a twig of fried sage. The calamari was pretty good.
We also got an order of the ale-battered onion rings. They were large, thick and piled high on a plate. I had one and I thought the batter was over-herbed. The taste of the herbs in the batter was a bit of a detraction to the overall taste of the onion rings.
Entrees at Jimmy's Famous American Tavern range from steaks, pork chops, chicken dishes and a beef stroganoff dish that I damned near ordered up. Seafood entrees such a Pacific red snapper and a pan-roasted sea bass were also on the menu. They also had a big bowl of gumbo on the menu as an entree, another thing that I considered before I ordered.
It seemed like everyone was ordering up burgers and the spicy California burger had caught my attention. It featured green chiles, pickled jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, and finished off with a slice of red onion, a tomato slice and a chipotle mayo dressing. Guacamole also came on the burger, but I asked if I could get it on the side.
The burger was thick and came with a knife stuck in the middle of the burger. First of all, don't put a knife in my burger, please. Secondly, it was messy. There was a lot of stuff on the burger and I was worried that it would mask the overall taste of the beef. I had to cut it in half just to be able to handle the burger.
And there were a lot of tastes going on with the burger. The green chiles had a nice smoky kick to their flavor. The pickled jalapeños had a sweet and spicy taste to them. The bacon was thick and tasty. But the burger was thick enough that all the tastes melded well with the taste of the beef. The bun was thick and it needed to be to hold together all that was going on with the burger. It was a good burger - not great - but fine for what I needed that evening.
We all remarked that our meals at Jimmy's Famous American Tavern were fine - probably better than the food they were serving back at the hotel that evening for our conference. The wine list was somewhat impressive as was the beer selection. While we didn't do much more than just burgers and some fish & chips, Jimmy's appeared to have a pretty extensive - if not expensive - selection of entrees to choose from, as well. I liked the laid-back atmosphere at Jimmy's Famous America Tavern and it was good enough for what we were expecting from a place like that for dinner that evening.