Cool starter

Steak tartare gets special attention by a waiter who prepares it according to the customer’s taste at tableside. Chef Robert Allen has updated some of the menu while keeping many of the Polo Lounge favorites. (Richard Hartog / LAT)

Would you like anchovies? What about capers? How spicy do you like your steak tartare? The waiter at the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge who asks for my guest's preferences is as solicitous as my grandmother's doctor asking after her health. The various ingredients are mixed tableside into the raw beef, with professional panache. Good, maybe not quite as spicy as intended, the tartare, served with the warm, toasted brioche seems like a swell way to start off an evening at the legendary Polo Lounge.

Owned for almost 20 years by the sultan of Brunei, the hotel was built in 1912, when Beverly Hills was more countryside than iconic ZIP Code. But the Fountain coffee shop downstairs and the swank, clubby Polo Lounge became neighborhood hangouts for the movie stars during Hollywood's golden years.

These days you won't find the likes of Humphrey Bogart knocking back drinks in the bar or Marlene Dietrich lunching on the Polo Lounge patio beneath the famous Brazilian pepper tree. But there's certainly much more energy and verve than the last time I checked in. There's also a relatively new chef, Robert Allen, who came from the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. He's tweaked the menu and given it a more contemporary take without jettisoning some of the Polo Lounge's vaunted favorites such as tortilla soup and McCarthy salad.

At 8 on a weekend night, a platoon of valets in pink polo shirts stands at attention outside the hotel entrance, smartly opening car doors and wishing arrivals a pleasant evening. When we check in with the Polo Lounge hostess, she has no record of our reservation. Not to worry, I'm thinking. There's a sea of empty tables in the bar and in the dining room beyond. When she tells us she can't give us a table on the patio because they're all reserved, I'm tempted to raise a skeptical eyebrow.

"But we do have a table just inside, on the edge of the patio," she volunteers. Fine. The doors are open and they indeed look onto the ancient pepper tree strung with lights. Around it, tables are fit into secluded nooks; at the far end, tall mushroom-shaped concrete structures spill over with fuchsia bougainvillea. This is idyllic Southern California on a summer night.

Behind us are a handful of smaller semicircular booths upholstered in green, with vintage photos of dashing polo players hung on the wall above. Now, for the first time, I get the name.

No live polo players in evidence, though. At least not tonight. Nevertheless, my guests and I feel cosseted at our extravagantly draped table. Soon, sure enough, a pianist sits down at the grand and launches a cascade of notes, belting out "As Time Goes By" and "The Way You Look Tonight," along with, incongruously, Johnny Cash's "Walk the Line."

Servers circulate through the room in crisp white jackets. They're not the types to volunteer their names or answer every query with a patently insincere "absolutely!" These are pros.

The menu proposes Polo Lounge classics, along with an astute selection of contemporary California-French fare.

Hudson Valley foie gras and smoked duck breast terrine is luscious and thick, a beautiful example of the art of charcuterie. How could we resist the night's special soup, English pea with black truffles? It's a gorgeous green purée highlighted with truffles that have a great affinity for the peas and, for once, also have some flavor.

Pistou soup is delicious too, a dice of Provençal vegetables topped with a single ravioli in the bottom of the bowl. The waiter pours the soup around the orphaned veggies, and voilà, a delightful soupe au pistou.

Is it possible the iconic Polo Lounge is back in top form? Given the restaurant's status as a tourist magnet and L.A. landmark, the first courses are impressive. But then come the main courses — and another impression.

We're taking it slow, drawing out the evening, catching up with old friends. Sometime well past 9, I look up to see a crowd of customers at the door, impatiently bouncing on their heels, waving at people inside, waiting for the hostess to check them in.

The silver-blond L.A. public access TV host Skip E. Lowe, one of the inspirations for Martin Short's Jiminy Glick character, bounds from patio to bar and back again. Now he's encouraging the pianist to croon into his cellphone, offering a taste of the scene to whoever's on the other end.

As our main courses arrive, a motley crew parades through — cowboys, honeymooners, bon vivants, hotel guests, party animals. It's all very entertaining — and we're soon looking for some distraction, because the mains are mostly disappointing.

Lamb osso buco is the best of the lot, fork tender and served with a medley of Provençal vegetables and beans. I just wish the kitchen hadn't varnished the top with a heavy reduction, making it look more like a meatloaf than osso buco. Veal chops the size of lamb chops have an unappealing jelly-like texture and are coated in what seems to be cheese. No one wants to venture a second bite.

Halibut T-bone is not as fresh as it should be, and the morels that are its main appeal don't have much flavor.

A garden party

Midday at the Polo Lounge is quite a different scene, with more industry people doing lunch. This time when I call to make the reservation, I request a table in the garden. "I can't guarantee it," the reservationist purrs, and I fully expect we'll be bumped by a hotel guest or a semifamous face. But there it is, a table in the middle of the patio under white umbrellas that overlap enough to form a continuous canopy.