Racetrack Dining Reaches a New Level at the Frontrunner

Santa Anita Race Track, 285 W. Huntingdon Drive, Arcadia, California

Racetrack dining has been taken to a new level at Santa Anita in Arcadia, California, with the emergence of The Frontrunner restaurant, a huge facility that boasts a bar that is 215 foot long. It also offers a 180-degree view of the homestretch, infield and San Gabriel Mountains through 400-feet floor-to-ceiling sliding glass walls. Décor features bleached ash and mahogany wood paneling, ceiling fans, bamboo and rattan furniture and hand-carved wooden fixtures. It is a fun day out for sure, and the $20 million investment in updating the facilities at the track is led by the addition of this sparkling new restaurant. Gourmet dining is the key here, and with the hiring of Philadelphian Tom O’Connor as executive chef, they are moving in the right direction. The only comparison I can make would be with the Jubilee Restaurant at Kempton Park, which is far pricier, and not at all in the same league when it comes to the quality of the food. Each oversized table is also equipped with a nine-inch Sony television to watch the races along with a tabletop pari-mutual or tote machine to place your bets.

The Frontrunner has already had one dish, Chesapeake Bay Jumbo Lump Crabcake ($16), served with black-eyed pea salad, ginger slaw, Virginia ham and Remoulade that has already been mentioned in some of the major glossy food magazines. Many regulars just order that one item because it is so fresh tasting. Everybody raved about it on my table on a recent visit to the restaurant. The Frontrunner offers a great view of the world class racing, and with a convenient betting window close by, the action can sometimes get pretty exciting.

The menu created by O’Connor features regional and seasonal dishes that reflect Southern California, and the Pacific region. although the menu does get changed during the racing seasons in October, and again December through April. Chef was recruited from Universal Studios Hollywood where he was in charge of the catering for the entire park, opening nine new theme park and City Walk restaurants during his time there. His bio also says that he was private chef to the Philadelphia Eagles Football team. I am not sure how much actual cooking he does, because I suspect his role is much more of an administrative function, but judging by the pristine look of the kitchens he runs a very tight ship and has some excellent assistance from the 70 member staff. He prides himself on his ability to treat staff with respect and compassion as well as teaching them to constantly hone in and improve their skills.

The Frontrunner menu features five appetizers including the Classic Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail ($12), five pieces of very fresh tasting shrimp, and my choice next time at the track. I was not over impressed however with Steamed Manila Clams in a garlic, parsley and white wine sauce that seemed a bit insipid. I also had a taste of the House Mescalin Salad ($6) that comes with a blue cheese or balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

Some of the main items on the menu unfortunately were a bit hit and miss also. A winner was the Macadamia Crusted Halibut with a jasmine rice cake, onion confit and mango salsa ($22). Interesting dish with a very flaky crust that was not too overpowering. The Grilled Sonoma Lamb Chops ($24) came with a very good side dish of roasted garlic bread pudding, and caramelized shallots. The actual cut of the chops resulted in them not being not quite as tender as they could have been. The other main course tried was the Fresh Maine Lobster Tortilla ($16) with a warm corn relish, avocado and pico de gallo. Again one of my dining companions loved the concept but gave a thumbs down to the inside filling, claiming it to be bland.

Also on the menu are gourmet sandwiches, Pizza and Steaks, along with American Flat breads served with homemade chips that I had an opportunity to taste in the kitchens, and superb they were too. The wine list is brief with a sprinkling of the usual suspects such as cabernet, merlot, chardonnay, zinfandel etc, and are priced at $6.50 a glass. There is also some small print on the bottom of the menu that says there is a table charge of $10 minimum per person, so a day out at the Frontrunner is not a cheap day out, especially if you end up losing at the windows. It is however a great day out with high quality food in superb surroundings with a staff that really cares about the customer. Another good thing is that you can get there as early as 11:00 am and literally hang out all day with nobody bothering you to vacate, with the possible exception of Santa Anita Handicap and Santa Anita Derby days. The Sunday I went they did 700 covers, but I am not sure how busy they are on weekdays with racetrack attendance down almost 13% this season.

This is a major investment by Frank Stronach and his Magna Corporation team, and they deserve all the luck and good fortune that such an investment warrants.

Mike Hepworth, October 2000

Tel- (626) 574-7223
Santa Anita is 14 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

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