Old L.A. Meets Koreatown Halfway at the Prince

by Stephen Lemons

Descending the stairs at the corner of Seventh and Catalina streets to the rose-hued aura below is like stepping through a wrinkle in time, a portal to another world where the best of East and West converge in a Blade Runner-ish mixture of retro elegance and hip Asian affluence.

Lamps of swaggering Georgian redcoats stand guard with miniature steel Beefeaters over booths of vermilion leather. At the large, horseshoe-shaped bar, the mostly Korean and Korean-American patrons drink whiskey or beer while nibbling on tangy scallion pancakes or chips and salsa provided courtesy of the house. They chat and study whatever sporting events are on the TVs before them. Above, a ring of backlit, stained glass paneling casts a yellowish glow.

Welcome to the Prince, easily one of the coolest joints in L.A. to take a cocktail or wile away the evening staring amorously into the eyes of your beloved. Formerly known as the Windsor Restaurant and operated for over 40 years by legendary restaurateur Ben Dimsdale, the Wilshire Center spot is just below the ground floor of the regal Windsor Apartments.

In its heyday, the Windsor Restaurant was known for serving the finest continental cuisine to Hollywood stars and the political and financial elite of the city, state and nation. With the Ambassador Hotel's Cocoanut Grove in full swing nearby, the Windsor played host to everyone from President Nixon and then Gov. Ronald Reagan to Bette Davis and Michael Landon. The food was rich and decidedly old-school: beef Wellington, steak Diane, chicken Kiev, cherries jubilee and so on.

Ten years ago, Korean-American businessman Joung Lee bought the place from Dimsdale and kept the now slightly raffish décor. Though the name and menu have changed, the rest of the Windsor has been preserved. The old piano still sits in a corner, and the same oil paintings of English landscapes and Parisian still-lifes hang on the walls.

Follow the curve of the establishment toward the rear and you'll find two more rooms. The furthest one back was known as the Tudor Room, and almost looks like a little Elizabethan chapel with a peaked roof, stained-glass windows and heavy wooden chairs. Today it is occasionally used by hipsters for birthday parties or other events.

Out of site and usually locked up unless being rented by private parties or shown to nosy reporters is the Guards Room, a banquet hall that can seat 100 and features nine radiant crystal chandeliers.

"Mostly Korean people reserve it now," explains Ana Hernandez, the Winsdor Apartments' manager and the go-between for the Prince's Korean staff and non-Korean-speakers. "Mr. Lee loved the Windsor's decor, so he kept everything the same."

Dimsdale, 94, still lives on the premises, though he recently sold the property to an unnamed trio of investors. A tour of the Windsor's offices reveals walls lined with framed tributes from restaurant associations as well as laudatory notices from bygone publications. Dimsdale's genial countenance beams out from many of the latter.

Hernandez, a proper-looking woman, seems to be the person everyone knows and who knows everyone, though she's usually not around at night when the Prince is hopping. During the day, there are often film crews shooting in the remarkable interior. The Paul Schrader film Auto Focus used the Prince as a rendezvous for two of the main characters, and Hernandez confides that a movie about Elvis was recently filmed here.

The Prince's popularity with filmmakers is understandable, as there is no place quite like it. But the Prince's charms are constantly being rediscovered by both Korean Americans and non-Korean Americans. There is a bit of a language barrier. Nevertheless, the staff understands English and provides excellent service. One's best bet is to stick to the menu for both food and drinks. On a recent excursion, a cohort confused one of the Prince's waitresses with an order for a Manhattan. He eventually settled for bourbon on the rocks.

I was content with a large bottle of the Korean beer OB. But there were a number of alternatives listed on the menu such as sake, plum wine and a selection of soju cocktails. American cocktails listed included Sex on the Beach and Long Island Iced Tea.

The bill of fare offers everything from Cornish game hen and fried chicken to octopus with sauteed vegetables and fresh sea snail with hot sauce. One of my favorites is the combination pancake, actually a sampler platter with stuffed peppers, grilled white fish and meat patties. Delicious also is the seafood green onion pancake, a large Korean-style pancake with shrimp, crab, mussels, squid, jalapenos and green onions.

Prices are reasonable, from around $10-$15 for a platter large enough to serve two. Or you can just belly up to the bar, where beer and cocktails normally run $3-$6, and there are plenty of complimentary snacks.

What's priceless though is the atmosphere, with Korean being the first language of the bar and Asian love songs, Elton John and French ballads all getting equal stereo play. If you go, note that low-key savoir-faire is the order of the day and act accordingly. This isn't some boorish Hollywood meat market. Behave yourself in the presence of royalty, and you'll have a grand old time.

The Prince, 3198 W. Seventh St., at Catalina. Open 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. 7 daily. Call (213) 389-2007.

(page 1, 11/25/02)

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