Once upon a time before Interstate 5, Highland Avenue in National City was a major thoroughfare for pleasure-seekers on prohibition-era road trips to Tijuana to drink, gamble and carouse legally. When prohibition was finally lifted, Tijuana, Rosarito and Ensenada remained popular getaways, particularly as playgrounds for Hollywood stars—close enough for weekend jaunts, foreign enough to grant them a little privacy.
One popular 1930s celebrity haunt was Café La Maze in Hollywood, named for its charismatic maitre d’hotel, Marcel LaMaze. Marcel loved his clientele; he hung out with Jimmy Durante and played poker with the Marx Brothers. In 1940, the café’s owner, Jimmy Thompson, opened his second Café La Maze in National City, which was busted for tax evasion and illegal gambling in its upstairs private club in 1949. Marcel La Maze’s level of involvement in the National City location is unclear, but the restaurant has long been rumored to have been a popular stopping-off point for celebrities on their way south.
Cut to 70 years later and the restaurant lives on, complete with red vinyl booths, candles and a steakhouse menu, plus newer touches like large framed photos of alleged customers of the past, like Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and one of Marcel himself serving a happy-looking Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang, probably at the Hollywood location. The room also features live music, with solid jazz Wednesdays and Thursdays.
As Café La Maze celebrates its 71st anniversary this week, current owner Chris Kapetanios is upgrading the cocktail menu with classics, including the Sazerac, Mule and Trader Vic’s famous Scorpion. This is not game-changing craft cocktailing, but unlike many old-world steakhouses, here you can actually get a drink prepared with decent spirits and a thorough shake. Bartender Judean made me a margarita with 1800 Silver tequila, triple sec, agave and fresh lime juice. It was icy cold and well-balanced. I’m glad they’re moving in this direction. I expect the cocktail program here to keep evolving, even as Café La Maze remains awesomely stuck in the past.
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