Serial restaurateur David Wilhelm is legendary for creating and extinguishing more dining hot spots in O.C. than any hospitality veteran still on the scene. After a long hiatus, he’s back in a typically bold way with the whopping Jimmy’s Famous American Tavern overlooking Dana Point Harbor.
As ever, local diners are mobbing his new 225-seat venue, a spiffy retool of the shuttered Ristorante Ferrantelli. Since its opening last August, J-FAT, as Wilhelm calls it, has cranked out impressive quantities of fulsome burgers and all-American fare to ravenous customers. After an ear-splitting 45-minute wait one Saturday night, I had to wonder if it’s due to a pent-up demand for something fresh in this fairly staid dining zone.
Clearly, this tavern hits a lot of sweet spots. The prices are fair, the booze options copious, and the menu stacked with crave-inducing dishes. Ale-battered onion rings. Deviled eggs. Fried chicken. Shrimp cocktail. Prime rib. Creamed corn.
There’s nothing daunting or exotic about this fare. Even the occasional trendy twist, say, pistachios in the carrot cake cupcake, or jalapeño jam on a bacon cheeseburger, is utterly safe. One night we start with pimento cheese dip, rarely seen on local menus, and the deviled eggs, which are ubiquitous. Grated cheddar studded with roasted chilies gets plenty of love in the South, but tastes almost new here, with fresh tortilla chips for scooping. Alas, the cheese dish vastly outclasses the half-dozen soupy and oddly bland deviled eggs on their sad, skimpy bed of shredded lettuce. Even a garnish of jalapeno wheels can’t make up for it.
For good old-school fatty snacking, go straight to the giant order of crunchy, colossal onion rings, freshly fried in dark ale-spiked batter to be dunked in tangy house-made chipotle ketchup. The two are made for each other, literally. You can take home a 16-ounce bottle of the J-FAT condiment for $8. Flatbreads are yummy for sharing or boozing or both, the pear, fig jam, and Gorgonzola version exploding with intense, contrasting flavors. There’s an agreeable brunch version too, with bacon, eggs, and potato, which made our list of “25 Dishes You’ve Just Gotta Try” in December’s cover feature.
In keeping with the fry-cookery scheme, the six sandwiches and five burgers are hefty, two-handed affairs. Half-pound Angus patties stacked high with goodies stuffed between bronze brioche buns arrive impaled with a steak knife, as is the current fashion. The Famous Cheeseburger tastes mostly of beef, with cheddar and Thousand Isle dressing. Avocado, green chilies, and chipotle aioli give the Santa Fe Burger some balanced bite. I like the messy, hedonistic Jimmy Burger with thick bacon, jalapeno jam, and that rich pimento cheese. Though burgers come with the option of apple-mustard slaw, it’s a sure bet most diners choose the slender fries seasoned with sea salt and thyme. They’re sizzly and starchy, but those onion rings still win. Or, get your slaw on a Reuben, a fine, classic assemblage of pastrami, Swiss, and Russian dressing on grilled caraway rye.
Salads are almost outliers on this menu of rich indulgences, but the few choices are well-executed, especially the crisp romaine hearts with bacon, onion, and blue cheese dressing. It’s good enough to make you forget the dish’s tasteless winter tomatoes. Mildly spicy turkey chili fills the bill if you don’t mind sacrificing the flavor beef brings. But I get it—turkey is a welcome dietary choice for many. Of course the sour cream, cheddar, and cornbread probably reduce the virtue of turkey, but at least it’s a flavorful fall from grace.
Some entrees appear at both lunch and dinner. I was told the buttermilk-fried chicken is the hot-seller, and the description certainly entices: chicken, maple-glazed Brussels sprouts, and mashers with thyme gravy. But hope is lost after the first bite of boneless breast meat with little flavor outside the liberal dousing of gravy that destroys the chicken’s crunch. The five Brussels sprout halves are simply teases, and my eagerly awaited side of mashed potatoes is an overworked, glutinous mountain that needs less mashing and more heat. Overbeating also plagues the creamy grits that are too stiff, but the local halibut that shares the plate is perfectly pan-roasted and benefits from its lemon-caper butter sauce.
Ultra-beefy Angus prime rib is a standout entree. Bold seasoning yields a savory chew that balances well with the tender center of the roast. Gutsy horse-
radish cream makes one bite of beef beg for another. Though it comes with mashers, this cut of meat deserves the decadent side of creamed corn capped with Parmesan.
Meant-to-share desserts are the stuff of school-kid dreams: bananas, butter pecan ice cream, warm chocolate-chip cookies, hot fudge, salted peanuts. These massive concoctions sound better than they taste, but in all fairness, few desserts can withstand mass spoon attacks. The end result is gloppy sweet on sweet, with a dash of salt.
Burnished woods and expansive windows overlooking the harbor give a slightly nautical spin to the hip-casual space that feels coastal and very local. The place is noisy when busy, so bring your outside voice. Service can be wonderful or wobbly, typical of new high-volume ventures.
I predict a rosy future for J-FAT and expect more to open in other desirable ZIP codes. Humans long to gather and soothe their appetites with food, mood, and drink that are simple and restorative. Don’t look for more than that here, and you’ll leave with a satisfied spirit.
Southern pimento cheese, ale-battered onion rings, grilled flatbreads, hearts of romaine salad, burgers and sliders, pastrami Reuben, roast prime rib, local halibut.
Lunch, $6 to $18; brunch, $3 to $22; dinner, $7 to $32.
From 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, discounted drinks and eats are $4 to $8.
25001 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point, 949-388-8900, j-fat.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue.