Ahhh, Chez Careeee: Judy Clifford Captures Dining Elegance of a Bygone Era

by Memoir Mentor on March 19, 2012

Going out to dinner. Are there any more magical words in the English language…especially for women? There’s little that compares with the pleasure of scanning a crisp menu, choosing exactly what appeals to you, having someone else cook and serve it to you–and then clean up afterward. We used to do it less than we do now, when restaurants of all kinds are packed with families nearly every night of the week. With so many mothers working these days, eating out has become more common, a necessity, in some cases, so Mom can juggle multiple roles and still keep her sanity.

But eating out was a rare occurrence during my childhood. My parents were always pinching their pennies. Dining out was a luxury, no matter how ordinary the restaurant, and those glorious rare occasions still shimmer in my memory. It was always on a Friday, Dad’s pay day, when my parents felt a little flush. I remember the excitement of getting cleaned up after school and eagerly waiting Dad’s arrival, when we’d pile into our one car, usually a Ford or  Chevy, and head to Don’s Chili, The Memory House, or Cinco de Mayo’s, three of our favorites. What a treat. I tasted my first crunchy taco at Cinco de Mayo’s in Inglewood and still remember listening to “It’s Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” playing on the jukebox at Don’s Chili in Fullerton. What simple memories stay with us through the years.

Of course, all this serves as a lead in for the delicious story that follows, written by Judy Clifford, a new student this term. Judy recounts with exquisite detail the special occasions her parents treated her and her sister to unforgettable evenings at Chez Cary, then one of Orange County’s landmark posh eating establishments. Reading about the culinary experience Judy so beautifully describes makes me want to use words like eating establishment, and culinary, and posh. You’ll seeRead on with pleasure, and “Bon Apetit!”

Canard aux Petits Pois
by Judy Clifford 

Whenever my sister Lisa or I won an award in school, achieved a challenging goal, or celebrated a milestone birthday, my mother gussied us up and my father treated us to dinner at the Chez Carey restaurant on Main Street in Santa Ana.

Somehow the contrast between the bright Southern California sky and the dusky, romantic interior never failed to enchant me. As soon as I settled into the soft, red velvet booth, and placed my clumsy feet on the footstool, I became a princess, a role that clearly belonged to my older sister at home. Now, in this dreamy place, the Chez Careeeee, which was the French way of pronouncing it, the playing field was at last leveled.

Lisa had long blonde hair, even thicker and glossier than Marcia Brady’s. And that made her a royal figure, at least in my estimation. I sported a different hairstyle then.  It was called a pixie cut. I wasn’t quite sure what pixies had done or what they even were, but it was obvious that they had been very, very bad and had to be punished in order to regain whatever status they had once held.

Pixie cuts had become an instant hit when Twiggy, a young model from England, was photographed wearing the hairdo. She had long beautiful legs and short, stubby hair.

My parents decided the short, stubby hair would look super on me. It didn’t. I had none of Twiggy’s style, let alone her—well—maturity. She had bumps in places that actually seemed to cave in on me. I was only nine, after all. My short brown hair accentuated my cowlicks, and had led to one horrific incident in which a shop owner had called me “son.”   My parents called me “adorable,” and that meant that I was going to have the dreaded hairstyle for a very long time.

But the Chez Carey made all of my worries vanish. Even the air was glorious. It was filled with scents so varied I could hardly distinguish them. But I learned that garlic, brandy, and peppermint do mix, when they hang together, heavy and lush in the atmosphere of the most magnificent restaurant on earth.

“We can count on consistent service at the Chez Carey,” my father would say.  My mother would nod her perfectly coiffed blonde head, and beam up at him.

“I totally agree. And, the food is exquisite.” These were grown-up conversations, and I treasured being let into their secret world, because frankly, they left us out of it and stuck us with a baby sitter on Saturday nights.

One night, we went to celebrate my second-place finish in a piano contest. As I perched on my chair, my feet dangling and barely grazing the footstool beneath me, I waited in hushed wonder for the waiter to take our drink order. I knew the routine by heart.

“Would you care for anything to drink?” he asked, with his pad of paper and pen brandished and ready for action.

My mother said,  “Yes, I think we will. I’ll have a martini, dry with an olive.”

“Certainly,” the waiter responded as he scratched something quickly on his pad.  Then, he turned to us kids and asked, “And, Mademoiselles, for you?”

Together, Lisa and I chanted, “May I have a Shirley Temple, please?” There was no straying from the script. This was the correct way to order. No other wording was allowed.

Finally, the waiter turned his attention to my father, who ordered an “Old Fashioned,” or something that sounded like that, because I never had the guts to ask him the real name. If there was one thing I’d been taught, it was not to question authority.

The next part of the meal was my favorite. The waiter glided to our table and presented our menus to each of us with great flourish. I took a deep breath. I could almost taste the earthy scent of the leather embossed menu cover. As I opened the menu, I took my time to peruse it. My parents didn’t mind. They encouraged this. The food items were listed first in French, and then translated in English. The fun was in the learning. What could a “canard” possibly be? A duck. And yes, now I knew that “petits pois” meant plain old green peas.

As I inspected the menu, my parents engaged us in a game of  “Name that Tune.” The background music was just that: in the background. I don’t remember if it was live or not. And all of the songs were standards by Sinatra or Dean Martin. This was the most enjoyable time of the evening. My father smiled at my sister and me as though he were proud of everything we had done up to that moment. I sucked down my Shirley Temple as fast as I could, just so I get another round of the sticky-sweet maraschino cherries. My mother was her stunning self, laughing out loud, and charming each and every person with whom she had contact. She even had a smile for the people we saw on our way to visit “the little girl’s room,” as my father called it. And there seemed to be an easiness in the chatter among the four of us that didn’t always happen at home. Such was the magic of the Chez Carey restaurant.  Such is the magic of childhood memories.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sally Ramer March 26, 2012 at 12:34 pm

I just loved your story, Judy! I remember Chez Carey very well, but saw it through an adult’s eyes, so your image of its magic from a child’s point of view gave it a whole new look for me. You captured the excitement of those special dinner outings just perfectly, and you gave us just a tantalizing hint of frictions between your famlly mmbers that may have surfaced at home–but never on those occasions when all were on their best behavior at tres posh Chez Carey.

2 Bob King January 25, 2013 at 10:42 am

Sheesh!! You’d think after fine dining experiences at the Chez, one would certainly remember that the restaurant was called Chez CARY, not CarEy!

I knew Cary quite well from his stint at managing The Villa Fontana…..just down the street from the restaurant he was going to open with the Mueller brothers and Howard Lawson’s money.

Mr. Lawson told me, right after canning Cary (real name Bill Whitehead and a graduate of Wilson High School in Long Beach) that Sinclair didn’t own “one damned knife, fork or napkin” at Chez Cary.

Lawson’s dough all the way…..also at the Villa Fontana. Cary was a great “front man”, affable, gregarious and smart as a whip. That’s why he was able to convince Mr. Lawson (and a gent from San Diego who owned American Jewelers…..whose name escapes at the moment) that he (and others) should find a couple of million to open the Chez Cary. What a guy!

After he got canned, he moved to Mexico and opened a couple of “discos” that proved to be very successful. I understand that Cary is now living in Texas…..he’s a little older than I, I’m 78, so believe he’s about 82 or so.

Still, the dude’s a consummate salesman and raconteur….gotta give that to the gent. I always liked him.

3 John Stahler March 18, 2017 at 9:59 pm

The owner and founder of the Chez Cary was Nate Rosenberg of San Diego. Howard Lawson never had an interest in the Chez.

4 Terry Witsaman September 27, 2017 at 3:45 am

I worked at this restaurant in the 1960 s / early 70s . What a fabulous place . The chef was Austrian at the time . I prepared salad and cheese trays as well as steak tartar and caviar while a student at Santa Ana College. They had a wine cellar dining room where celebreties could dine in privacy . I remember a tv evangelist coming there by the name of Billy . The manager said he would fire anyone who divulged the secret . This was the most expensive restaurant in Orange County at the time. After the restaurant closed for the day we would play poker in the pantry while drinking a bottle of Early Times bourbon and a case of beer . The chef bought those refreshments every night for everyone.

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