By Brianna Chu
The current owner of the local Arcadian landmark and restaurant, the Derby, doesn’t really put his name out there. Dustin Nicholarsen prefers to be behind-the-scenes, half curating a museum and half running a restaurant that he actually loves to eat at, as he puts it. He is well-versed in the restaurant’s storied history, right from its beginnings in 1922 as “the world’s first Subway,” as they like to joke – the restaurant’s original menu mostly included chicken and chicken sandwiches. The area was mostly orange groves at the time, so during the daytime on non-race days they served fresh chicken and had picnic tables set up on which folks could make their sandwiches. Their dinners featured fancier entrées and steaks; in fact, the only original menu item that has stood the test of time is their bacon-wrapped filet mignon (whose longevity, I think, is pretty self-explanatory)!
There are certainly challenges upkeeping a building that is now almost a century old. In fact, not much of the structure itself is original. The façade of another Derby that used to exist in Glendora was used to repair the damage to the façade of the Derby here in Arcadia. Nicholarsen likens the building to having rings, like a tree, as parts were added and edited to the original building.
He’d been learning the ins and outs of the Derby for a while; while he didn’t buy the restaurant until 2007, he had been working at the restaurant since 2000, when he was originally hired as a busboy. Nicholarsen went to culinary school to learn how restaurants make money, and when he was hired as general manager, he started focusing more on offsite events and hosting larger banquet groups, to great success. The previous owners, the Sturniolos, sold Nicholarsen the Derby after several decades of successfully running the business, and he remembers that it was at owner Charles’ wife Bonnie’s behest that he was sold the business as she wanted to spend more time with her husband. As a restauranteur, other people’s vacation days are often the busiest and most intensive work days of the year, and so the Sturniolos decided to take a well-earned retirement from the business and passed the reins (pun absolutely intended – I had to!) on to Nicholarsen. However, he wasn’t alone: the Sturniolos returned occasionally to help and guide Nicholarsen, and his brother, mother, and best friend worked various capacities at the Derby, too, at points. Even the city councillors and the fire marshal pitched in when he was figuring out how to retrofit the Derby for earthquakes, because they cared about the restaurant and wanted to help preserve it.
Nicholarsen has learned more about the Derby than just its history, though – he wasn’t much of a believer in ghosts before, but he is sure the place is genuinely haunted. The Derby’s most famous owner was the renowned jockey, George Woolf, and he loved the place so much, he may never have left at all! Woolf was known to be a jovial jokester, a singer, and a bit of a ladies’ man. Past female general managers of the Derby have consistently reported hearing someone singing late at night while they are closing up the restaurant, but never finding anyone who could be the source of the singing… Nicholarsen was dubious (and curious), so didn’t mention the story when he hired a new general manager who happened to be female; and he was amazed when she, too, without warning or foreknowledge, mentioned that she had heard mysterious singing while closing up late at night. They also knew that Woolf particularly favored a chair at the end of the bar, closest to the front of the restaurant. Before closing, they always straightened the chairs so they faced the bar. However, in the morning, Woolf’s chair would be found facing outwards, towards the rest of the room. They checked the floor under the chair to see if it was uneven. Nope! They even changed the particular chair in Woolf’s spot – perhaps there was something faulty with that particular chair? No again – in the morning, the chair in Woolf’s favorite spot still faced the rest of the room. As Nicholarsen concluded recounting another experience he had with Woolf’s ghost – this is not a drill, people! – the overhead lights flickered, and then went out.
So, crazy coincidence or ghost? Honestly, I don’t know myself, but it goes to show that the Derby has many tales to tell.
Ghost or no, the history and esteem of the Derby are partially why Nicholarsen still hasn’t quite overcome the “is this really my life?” factor of running the Derby. He is continually grateful, he says, for the amount of support the locals and the regulars show the restaurant, and he truly wants his customers to know how much he and the Derby family appreciates them – and they are a family, as several of the staff have worked over forty years there! The Derby has been a part of locals’ lives, too – one of their regulars celebrated her 91st birthday there, during which time she told the staff that her mother actually told her father that she was pregnant with her at the Derby, so the restaurant had been a part of her life even before she was born! Nicholarsen fondly recounts seeing one of their regulars bringing her grandchildren to the Derby at Christmas, and seeing that they’d dressed up and were singing with the carolers outside. All these moments and many more, which highlight the joy of the local community and the Derby’s place in it, make him feel incredibly lucky.
The Derby’s menu has changed significantly from its opening days. Their lunch menu is more traditional and akin to the menu you would have seen in the ‘70s, while the dinner menu has seen additions of Asian-inspired dishes by request; and some of their regulars, a Thai couple, even came in to teach the chefs how to make Thai peanut chicken! As for bestsellers and personal favorites, Nicholarsen is partial to the Gary Stevens, the prime Delmonico New York steak, and one of the most popular items is the prime rib, which is available seven days a week. Of course, the original bacon-wrapped filet has always been a bestseller and a staple of the menu! Their three course prix-fixe menu is the best way to try their items without breaking the bank: the lunch prix-fixe is $25, and the dinner prix-fixe is $51.
While Nicholarsen is aware that in terms of food, they are often on the upper end of the price range, he has never heard a complaint about the prices at the bar. Per their daily double special, if you order a gin and tonic, for instance, you will be served your gin in one glass, and your tonic in another – essentially getting two drinks for the price of one! Their happy hour, unsurprisingly, is always full. And he wants people to love coming in – he wants people to feel like it’s their living room, too: so tell them if you won money at the tracks, and they’ll celebrate with you! And if you didn’t, they’ll cry with you. They pride themselves on a family atmosphere, and indeed, while being seated, the waitress cleared some places out of the way to make room for my laptop, and when I apologized, she told me: “Don’t be silly, honey! Our house is your house!”
The three dining rooms in the Derby are all immaculately kept with shiny red patent leather booths and lit with low and warm lighting. All the walls expose the brickwork of the building, upon which hang paintings of the races, jockeys, and horses. The stained glass windows and chandeliers add pops of color throughout, and the main dining room boasts a real fireplace with a beautiful mantlepiece!
While we waited for our main courses, we were served thick, piping-hot slices of garlic cheese bread. It’s a dangerously delicious temptation, especially right before a big meal. First up: the storied Thai peanut chicken, which was accompanied by a mix of brown and wild rice and tender but not soggy stir-fried vegetables, including red bell peppers, broccoli, asparagus, and carrots. The chicken was covered in flavorful and creamy peanut sauce, and flecked with black and white sesame seeds.
The Atlantic salmon was moist and soft as butter, covered in a creamy, tangy sauce and capers. Even as someone who doesn’t usually order salmon, I was quickly reaching for bite after bite! We ordered onion rings on the side, which had a thick and firm batter exterior. The onion itself wasn’t slimy or stringy, so there wasn’t that annoying moment where you bite into your onion ring and end up pulling all of the onion out of the ring and just get left with the batter, either!
We also sampled a couple of shrimp scampi, which were topped generously with Parmesan cheese and served with a garlic butter sauce. (You may be able to tell I started out with the healthy food and then jumped straight into the much less healthy but very indulgent food right afterwards.)
The prime rib dip is a bestselling sandwich for a good reason. The bread was dissolve-in-your-mouth soft, piled high with thin, incredibly tender slices of prime rib and topped off with cheese. The accompanying au jus infused the entire sandwich with extra savory flavor. Be warned: you can consume it more quickly than you’d think and you may end up ordering a second! The sweet potato fries were wonderful, too – and I know this combination will be one I will be returning for shortly!
The sweet-tooth satisfying bananas foster was the ideal end to our meal. The bananas were warm and doused generously in syrup, paired with vanilla ice cream – what’s not to love?
So whether you come for the history, the ghost stories, or just the delicious food, you can know that you will be a welcome member of the family and be a part of local history at the Derby! (P.S. You can read more about the Derby’s history on their website!)
233 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia, CA 91006