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Sunday, Dec 3, 2023

Fifi Chao Picks Jim Hall of The Clubhouse


3333 Bristol St.

Costa Mesa

(714) 708-2582

I didn’t have to think about this one for very long: The criteria for Restaurateur of the Year perfectly suits this year’s winner, Jim Hall of The Clubhouse.

I look for someone who has infused a new passion for food and service into his or her restaurant, changed something significant in the concept that makes the restaurant more pleasurable for the dining public, or has kept things on a professional level while peers fuddle around with changing trends.

Jim is managing partner of the Clubhouse. Under his professional direction, the restaurant’s welcome demeanor now starts at the front door, while the rough edges that sometimes peeked out in years past have disappeared.

During the past three years, Jim has forged a sense of camaraderie among his staff, has overseen an upgrading of menu items and has turned this into a restaurant where, for the first time, we really feel that it wants to bring the best to the customer.

Jim had the education and background to make the changes, and he ran with the opportunity to polish up this star. As a result of all the changes, sales are up, including banquet bookings, since Jim became the managing partner a few years ago.

Jim actually joined the restaurant three months after its opening in 1999. It was a time when the Clubhouse was mentioned in conversations about Orange County’s most beautiful restaurants.

Every trendy diner had to see the opulence (and whispered that they’d heard it cost about $14 million to build). Celebrity investor names were bandied about, fanning the curiosity.

I was not alone in experiencing a sense of awe on my first tour. Reservations galore followed the opening.

The menu was predicated upon easy-to-understand American food. It was good and having access to this kind of glamorous ambiance in which to eat was thrilling.

The euphoria lasted for a while but then began to fade. We found out that the restaurant had been put up for sale and that always affects the morale of the staff in some manner,all possible changes and improvements often are left in limbo until a deal is decided.

In 2001, the Clubhouse was bought, along with two sister restaurants in Atlanta and Oak Brook, Ill., by Chicago-based Clever Ideas Inc. This forward-thinking company already had a track record for getting restaurants on higher footing.

In this case, Clever Ideas looked at a staff that included many who had been on board since the beginning and they realized that Jim had the potential and the attitude to inspire change and keep good employees.

All of the exquisite touches still exist. The curvaceous bar on the first level, whose ceiling is two stories high and embellished with gold leaf. The very grand spiraling staircase,that takes us to the sophisticated upper dining room and inviting patio. The tons of French silk velvet in saturated colors swathing the massive windows and upholstering the chairs. The custom-designed artifacts, chandeliers, mirrors and gorgeous lamps. All the millwork and rich wood.

It’s a substantially rich package that balances the act by not gouging our wallet.

The food still is approachable and value-oriented. Now the quality is so good.

The menu has significant categories of pastas, fresh fish and shellfish, steaks and chops,even prime rib,and very homey things like meatloaf and chicken pot pie.

The dinner menu features entrees that begin at $12.95 (sandwiches and salads are $7.50 to $14) and top out at $31.95 for a full pound N.Y. strip steak.

There’s a separate dessert menu to do the dozen sweets justice (banana cream pie with shards of chocolate, fruit cobbler, a terribly sinful chocolate cake, cr & #269;me br & #369;l & #233;e, ice creams and such).

The 100-label wine list covers six countries; 40 of the wines are sold by the glass. Downstairs, there’s more casual dining in the cafe-like atmosphere.

With all this moneyed ambiance and a terrific lineup of sandwiches and salads to complement the rest of the menu, lunch is something you should consider.

The Clubhouse has added special holiday brunches. That idea was launched at Thanksgiving last year and it was extremely popular. Easter brunch is next.

When you go to the Clubhouse to experience a special meal, I hope you will ask if Jim is there and say “Hello.” You will see why his smile and attitude add brightness to the world and you certainly will enjoy talking food and wine with him.

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