Casual Elegance at Luke Bar & Restaurant in Woodland Hills

  luke bar & restaurant ext nightPhoto courtesy of Luke Bar & Restaurant

Ever since moving to The Bubble over five years ago, I have been on the lookout for places to meet my friends from the Valley and beyond. Places that have easy freeway access, plenty of parking, a lively atmosphere but not too loud for talking, and oh yeah, great food and drinks too. I have my hot spots in Sherman Oaks and Studio City, but Woodland Hills has been kind of a dead zone for me.

Until now.

Luke Bar & Restaurant opened just a few months ago in the space formerly occupied by La Frite. That good old standby for folks who’ve lived here for decades doesn’t look the same at all. And while La Frite was beloved by many, I am here to tell you that its new occupant is welcome, dazzling in its food and drink offerings, and relaxing enough that catching up with a dear friend, or watching the game with your pals, or dressing up for a fancy date can all be done here to much satisfaction.

luke bar & restaurantPhoto courtesy of Luke Bar & Restaurant

I visited Luke with my friend Jennifer on a Tuesday evening during dinner hour. We had just missed Luke’s “Cocktail Hour,” which is better than happy hour, obvs. Much more refined, with classed-up appetizers and a drink menu that includes a flight of mini cocktails for $12. This happens Tuesdays through Thursdays from 5pm to 7pm. Needless to say, I’ll be back for that alone.

We settled into to our big round booth facing the bar, all smooth dark wood and exposed beam ceilings. The space was dimly lit and the noise among diners and bar patrons alike was at comfortable conversation level. We felt like we were in a casual pub, but looking up to the crystal chandeliers, we were both happy that we dressed up just a little. It didn’t matter that it was only for each other. The setting welcomed but didn’t require it. We would have been just as comfortable in jeans and Chuck Taylors.

basil collinsthe Basil Collins

The full cocktail menu is filled with inspired recipes. My favorite title is Writer’s Elixir, but that seemed more hardcore than I was in the mood for that night, so I tried the Cranberry Lime Caipirinha in a brown-sugar-rimmed glass, which went down nice and easy. Jen ordered the Cafe’ Castillo, a blend of altos reposado, Kahlua, and almond milk horchata, garnished with a cinnamon stick. A sweet winter treat. Let’s just say that went down easy too. The star of the drinks course was the Basil Collins, even though this tall green concoction is garnished with a sliver of star anise. It looks groovy, but neither of us like the taste of black licorice, and we were happy to find that removing it quickly (after snapping a photo) meant the refreshing tart drink wasn’t marred by that wicked flavor. (But if you like black licorice, Tito’s vodka, St. Germaine, lemon, and basil, well, you have a winner.)

Okay, so, already we have a great meeting place for drinks. Luke is right off the 101 – exit Topanga and then keep heading east. Stop when you see the lighted sign and the pretty red twinkle lights in the bushes. There’s parking in the lot, on the street, and available by valet.

Appetizers can be the main event of your meal if you want – we tried the black tiger shrimp served with chickpea fritters, harissa aioli and micro bulls blood, a delicate pink edible flower. We also had the tuna Napoleon, a tartare that was a fresh rendition of the old-school favorite. In fact, many of the items on Chef Thomas Deville’s menu are nods to classic dishes but with updated twists – like the Italienne chopped salad with its not-too-many cannelini beans (one of my favorite dishes of the evening), and the gastropub-type burger, to which you can add a slice of foie gras.

saladshouse salad and Italienne chopped salad

For the entree I switched to red wine, because I ordered the steak, naturally. All that dark wood and candlelight, how could I do otherwise? The wine list at Luke is just as unique and classy as everything else, meaning I didn’t recognize any of the names on it, but the ones I tasted were delicious. Jen’s glass of Habit, a Gruner out of Santa Ynez, was refreshing and smooth, and my Stolpman Estate Syrah from Santa Barbara paired excellently with a cut of steak I’ve also never tried before.

manhattan steaktwenty eight day dry aged Manhattan

The 28-day Dry Aged Manhattan is a ball of meat that’s basically a NY strip that tastes like filet mignon, flavored with a salty-savory rub created by the eponymous Luke himself. (That’s Luke Hartzog, former Wall Street wiz who simply loves food. And it shows.)  I’ve been doing restaurant features and reviews for over a decade now, and I’ve learned to eat and drink just enough of each dish to get the true flavor of it and the sense of what my host is trying to accomplish. But at Luke I ate the whole thing. I couldn’t help it.

Like good friends (and dinner companions who know I’ll be writing about this later) do, Jen ordered something pretty different. The short rib Bolognese is served with house-made tagliatelle, using ribs that have been smoked on site all day. The smoky flavor and the rich homemade pasta were a perfect blend.

bread puddingBread Pudding

Luckily Jen and I both had room for dessert. Luke has a few signature dishes: the apple pie nachos, which are great for sharing with a group, and the bread pudding, which is…great for fighting everyone else off and keeping for yourself.

Here’s a fun little thing they do at Luke. We did have some leftovers to take with us, but after our server took them away to be boxed up, she never brought them back. Instead, at Luke they send your leftovers to the door, guarded by the host, so you don’t forget them when you leave.

As if we could. It was such a lovely discovery, this place where you can pause and enjoy yourself along busy Ventura Boulevard, that I would actually go to Luke on purpose, not just to find a halfway point to meet a friend. But it’s nice to have both reasons.

So. Who’s ready for cocktails?

Luke Bar & Restaurant
22616 Ventura Boulevard
Woodland Hills, CA 91364
(818) 876-6000

My friend and I dined at Luke as guests of the restaurant to facilitate this review. All opinions and pining to return are my own.