Fred Deni, Piero Biondi, Rita Zeid and Dennis Mangan and Allan Dichner never have met, but they have something in common. They are restaurant owners who close their doors to the public on Thanksgiving Day and serve special free dinners to needy families and senior citizens.
"I wish we could interest more people in doing this," said Deni, owner of Back on Broadway restaurant in Santa Monica. "Because we just can't handle all the people who really are in need, including whole families who have nowhere to go on Thanksgiving. I'm not talking about street people. I'm talking about whole families. It is truly sad to think that an entire family doesn't have an extra $20 to make a holiday meal."
Deni, an actor turned restaurateur, began his special Thanksgiving dinners in his home 14 years ago for five people, theatrical friends of his who were unemployed or had no family in California.
"It was a dinner that just kept growing," Deni explained. "The last year at the house--1978--there were 97 people, and I do not live in a mansion. It took me two days to clean the house. I decided then that I would invite the same people the next year, but this time they were going to work and serve others who really needed it. The first year we did it, everybody said it was the best Thanksgiving ever."
Deni's free Thanksgiving feast has since become a tradition in Santa Monica. Last year he fed 1,847 people at his restaurant, which seats about 90 people at one time, in two small inside rooms and outside on an enclosed patio.
"The need is there," he said. "We could probably have as many as 3,000, but we don't have the space. This year we'll limit it to about 1,100 here, and we'll be sending dinners for about 150 to the Bible Tabernacle Center in Venice."
'Really Trying Hard'
For today's dinner, Deni has invited groups from the Israel Levin Center for Senior Citizens, the Santa Monica Senior Citizens Center, the Ocean Park Community Services Center, and Project Return, an educational and vocational center for adults recovering from mental illness.
"I picked Project Return because these people are really trying hard to reenter society and people discriminate against them," Deni said. "There's a restaurant here in Santa Monica where some of the Project Return people went for dinner one evening and the owner wouldn't serve them. He just refused. You have to remember that mental illness isn't chic. I was so angry when I heard that, I called and invited them to lunch here."
All this week, Deni has been receiving donations from private citizens and will use some of the money to provide additional dinners to needy persons. The rest he plans to donate to Project Return.
"People have been showing up with checks this week and I'm thrilled," he said. "They've just been stopping by. There was one man, a developer, who was going to underwrite part of the dinner so we could add more people, but then he died. I couldn't believe an angel showed up out of the blue and then he was gone. This week, his estate sent a check. Isn't that great?"
Early in November, Deni had put out the word that he needed assistance and asked if any Westside restaurant owners would be willing to serve some needy groups. Deni said he would make any arrangements for as many as the restaurant could serve. He got no offers.
"Most restaurants are open on Thanksgiving. It's a big day for them," he said. "I just never fell into the category of a family restaurant and I never wanted to. But this is different. No one who's come and enjoyed our Thanksgiving has ever returned and said, 'Can I have a free meal today?' I think most restaurateurs are afraid of that. But it's never happened here."
For Thanksgiving, Deni's friends, acquaintances and customers volunteer to wait tables along with the restaurant's regular staff. So far, 75 have signed up to help serve today's dinner, starting at noon.
Deni estimates he'll be serving about 500 pounds of turkey, along with all the trimmings and pumpkin pie for dessert.
"Burt and Louie Mazer, who own the Chef's Annex on Pico in West Los Angeles, called and volunteered to let us use their big luxury oven to roast the turkeys," Deni said. "That's really much better for us because that oven will bake 25 turkeys at a time. They're the only ones who called. But maybe there will be more next year.
"People say, 'Why do you do this?' And I say that feeding people is what's paying my rent and for my car," Deni added. "This is my way of giving back. There are some tear-jerker stories, and you should see the thank-you letters we get. Last year, a father came with his three children. They spent all day here because they had nowhere else to go. He came up to me afterwards and he was crying. He kept saying 'thank you, we wouldn't have had a Thanksgiving dinner without you.' That's what makes me do this."