Sunday, December 12, 2010
Yes, Virginia, there really was a Larry Blake.
The legendary restaurant owner died in 1992, but his fun-loving spirit still rules the eponymous Berkeley eatery that bears his name.
Larry sold it to one of his old waiters, Harry Kealey, in 1978. And although the name was changed in 2002 from Larry Blake's to Blakes On Telegraph, Larry would have no trouble recognizing it.
He founded the place in 1940, financed by $700 he won in a high-stakes poker game from a gambler named Porterhouse Pete - so called because he could devour two 2-lb. porterhouse steaks in a sitting.
Porterhouse Pete became one of Larry's best customers, always ordering the same thing: the 20-oz. "He-Man Steak" ("It takes a man to carry it in, and it takes a man to carry it out," read the menu); two baked potatoes with bacon, sour cream and chives; a double order of salad; a loaf of bread with plenty of butter; three slices of apple pie a la mode; and a pitcher of iced tea sweetened with saccharine because, as he explained, "I'm trying to lose weight."
But Larry's most loyal customers were the generations of Cal students who made his joint their home away from home.
Many were jocks, from Jackie Jensen to Joe Kapp, who held their training tables at Larry Blake's for decades until the cafeteria at Haas Pavilion opened in 1999.
Others were counter-cultural icons such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin - both lousy tippers, by the way - and Timothy Leary, who spent the entire meal asking for antacids.
Larry was a character, even by Berkeley standards. As a publicity stunt during the 1949 Big Game, he hired a real-life Arab sheik - who was a grad student at Cal at the time - to ride a circus elephant across the Bay Bridge holding a huge sign reading, "I'm going to Larry Blake's for a good steak!"
Back then, a Blakeburger cost $1.25. Today, it'll set you back $5.49. It's called a Blakes Burger now; and, as a concession to changing tastes, it's made from hormone-free Niman Ranch beef.
But the famous Blake's salad dressing is unchanged from the secret recipe Larry invented during World War II, when he was a cook in the U.S. Army.
That secret has been divulged only once: back in the 1950s, when the wife of a local Mafia boss requested the recipe.
"I said no as nicely as I could," Larry told me years later. "Then her husband came to see me and said, 'Suppose I give you this for the recipe?' and handed me a C-note.
"That was a lot of dough in those days, but I refused. So he said, 'Suppose I gave you this?' and offered me two C-notes.
"But I still refused, so he pulled open his jacket to reveal a huge pistol stuck in his waistband and said, 'How about if I give you THIS?' I gave him the recipe."
A few things have changed over the years. For instance, the sawdust on the Rathskeller floor was removed in the 1980s when they installed new sound equipment for the live music acts.
But in every important way, it's still the same old Larry Blake's. Happy 70th anniversary, and may it prosper for another 70 years!