On a recent Wednesday, the slight, actorishly handsome dining-room manager at Lalo and Brothers in Encino conducted roll call before sending his uniformed troops out to serve lunch to those who do lunch.
The eight front waiters, back waiters and runners stood at parade rest with towels thrown over their shoulders as George Sheridan, 29, reminded them that the new restaurant demands service "to a high standard."
Check the flower pots on the tables and trim away anything that looks unvoguishly dead, he reminded in his list of orders and cautions.
Sheridan then revealed the specials, emphasizing that they must be memorized.
"We have curried duck served over a potato pancake, with apple, topped with slices of goat cheese," he said. "It's excellent. Push it. Ladies adore that dish."
Finally, Sheridan settled the matter of which waiter would be allowed to serve the remaining three orders of scallops.
"Now, let's go," he urged, as the waiters sprinted off to their flower pots.
Since it opened two months ago, Lalo and Brothers has been testing the hypothesis that the balsamic vinegar set--people who demand raspberries in February and fret about the temperature of their goat cheese--will support a new, up-scale restaurant that isn't on the Westside.
Status-conscious diners don't flock to the Valley, and only a few chic restaurants survive. La Serre in Studio City, the most frequently named exception, declined to reveal what goes on behind the scenes. But Lalo and Brothers swung open the door of its kitchen and allowed a look at the personalities, routines and rhythms of a restaurant trying to serve up style on Ventura Boulevard.
While the waiters pushed duck and potato pancakes, co-owner Lalo Durazo sat for a moment in the office, enthusing on the phone with a friend. "We had a great night last night," the Mexico-born restaurateur reported. "One of the sons of Ronald Reagan came in for the second time. And David Steinberg, the comedian, came in for the third time."
Like virtually everyone else in the business, Durazo, 29, dreamed of opening his own place all the years he worked for someone else. Encouraged by friends, he was also advised to locate in Beverly Hills or West Hollywood--\o7 anywhere \f7 but in the Valley. As he recalled, "When you speak to someone from the Valley about it, they say, 'Oh, great, we need a restaurant.' When you speak to someone from the city about it, they say, 'What are you doing there? There's nothing happening there. It's just a bedroom community.' "
Took a Gamble
But Durazo and his partner, chef Michel Despras, gambled on Encino, where real estate is more reasonable and where, according to a demographic study the men commissioned, 2 million people, many with money for morels as well as the mortgage, live within five miles of the restaurant. The restaurant doesn't buy newspaper ads, but it does have a publicist, whose duties include visiting doctors and lawyers in the area and leaving the restaurant's card. Doctors are important to places like Lalo and Brothers.
"Creating a restaurant is like producing a movie," the bartender, himself a former restaurant owner, said philosophically. "You have your own vision, and the trick is to get other people to share it with you." This establishment is clearly a co-production of Durazo and Despras, 31, who worked together at the Westwood Marquis Hotel.
Although they confer on everything, each man has territory where he is in charge.
Durazo's 6-foot-3 presence is more strongly felt in the public areas, where he greets customers in an environment that once existed only in his head. He thinks, for instance, that most eateries with patios feel like two separate restaurants, so this dining room is integrated with the outside by means of French doors.
View of Art
He said he believes restaurant art should be fun and encourage conversation, so the dining room now contains a wood sculpture of a grotesque, high-kicking nude that makes some people say, "I hate that." The art, like the menu and the wine list, is regularly changed because, he explained, "I love changing."
Chef Michel, as he is usually addressed, is king of the kitchen. While the waiters were out hustling the curried duck special, a recipe the chef had dreamed up the day before and test-marketed on a few regular customers, he was in the kitchen conferring with Chuck Novak, a salesman for Northern Produce.
Despras, who was born in Lyons, France, and has been working in kitchens since he was 13, has strong views on vegetables. Broccoli and sliced carrots should be banned. "It's so plain," he said disapprovingly. And he is scathing on the subject of baked potatoes. "You could have a bunch of dishwashers baking potatoes," he said.