In October 1990, Ruth Reichl — then the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, now the fairy godmother of contemporary food writing — ripped a recently opened California restaurant called Lunaria, saying it "had been such a disappointment ..."
The executive chef was Dominique Chavanon, who, within a few years of that review, ditched a clumsy ownership situation and moved to Colorado Springs with his wife Elaine to open what became Marigold Café and Bakery. Elaine's degree from the Culinary Institute of America, not to mention months spent in Paris learning from pastry god Gaston Lenôtre, informed the ovens; Dominique drew on extensive experience that included time underneath chef Paul Bocuse.
Regardless of what came before, the accolades followed almost immediately. And for some 20 years now, legitimate best-local-restaurant debates haven't been had without a mention of Marigold. "I love it here," says Elaine, 57, with a laugh. "It's kind of like, 'The star that shines alone shines brightest.' So we're not out there in the L.A. scene, where restaurants are, like, the flavor of the month."
Some responsibilities have since shifted to executive sous-chef Anne Ballmer and pastry chef José Aguilar. The pair fills the warm, summer-colored dining room with a mix of cuisines, including an impressive array of seafood — $15,000 worth per month, says Elaine — as well as large cakes, pastries and breads, all baked daily.
In turn, people pack the place: The parking lot, dotted with luxury cars, fills during peak meal times, and inside, the restaurant almost vibrates with conversational energy. Those folks are after things like the half-dozen oysters ($9), ours a mix of long, narrow Hama Hamas and small, round Goose Points — the former somewhat brackish, while the other is sweeter, like cucumber.
Some also seek the daily-made soups, like the solid French onion ($6); and a stomach-stirring beef with vegetables ($5), where fat chunks of mushrooms, and even fatter cubes of potato as soft as marshmallows, sit suspended in a thick broth.
Then there's a glistening, cross-hatched flat iron steak ($20), each bite charred and soft; the chicken penne rigate ($15) in a sweet, herb-y, bright-orange sauce popping with roasted red peppers, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes; and a plate of beef bourguignon ($20), featuring slow-cooked cubes so tender you could almost mash them. Unfortunately, except for a ridiculously rich portion of creamy scalloped potatoes, all our sides were lukewarm.
Meanwhile, at lunch, the restaurant goes bistro, losing the tablecloths, gorgeous flowery settings, and dinner prices.
Try the chicken brie sandwich ($8.99). It's the epitome of simple, but brilliant: moist grilled chicken; super creamy, slightly funky cheese; and just a hint of fresh and tart from the lettuce and tomato. The muffaletta ($8.25) seems a sapid sledgehammer in comparison, all deli-meat-and-olives brawn. Lastly, the margherita pizza ($8) is a solid option, though done better elsewhere.
As a final word, one more reason to visit: The owners have mused in years past about exiting the restaurant when all their kids graduate college; that being close at hand, Elaine half-joked with me in our interview about finding a buyer.
However it comes out, when you throw in coffee from Serranos, and paradisiac pickings from the bakery case — like slices of triple-chocolate cake ($4.95), topped with white-chocolate shavings; a huge eclair ($3.75) that just folds under your teeth; and a strawberries-and-cream fraisier cake ($4.95) spiked with a bright-green lime sauce — it's clear Marigold is a powerhouse at its peak.