At noon the Upstage Cafe is so jammed with people from the offices in the neighborhood that it looks like a convention hall. At night, the crowd has dwindled to a table or two. And that is the best time to experience this restaurant. "Experience" means not just eating but taking in the cool gray colors, the gazebolike structure of the main dining area and the small bright touches like fresh flowers and matching napkins that indicate this is not the barnlike coffee shop it might appear to be.
The Upstage Cafe is in the Wiltern Theater complex, thus its name. And thus the list of "Theatrical Combinations." These are sandwiches under such names as Mark Taper (turkey breast, ham and Swiss), Pantages (roast beef, ham, turkey and cheese), Dorothy Chandler (ham, salami, provolone and Swiss), Wiltern (ham, turkey, bacon, cheese and avocado) and the Greek Theater (mortadella, hard salami, ham, feta cheese and onion in pita bread).
Not just that final sandwich but a significant portion of the menu is Greek because that is the nationality of the restaurant's proprietors. Mike and Ed Begakis are the managers. Their father, Kosti, who had a seafood restaurant on the Bosporus for 20 years, makes such dishes as moussaka, pastitsio, taramosalata and cold marinated octopus. Their mother, Marika, contributes dolmas, keftedes and other specialties. The family comes not from Greece itself but from Istanbul, Turkey.
Marika's keftedes (grilled meatballs), are juicy, tender and marvelous. Lightly seasoned with onion, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper, they are served as an appetizer, accompanied by tomatoes, Greek olives and a pot of yogurt.
Scampi here is not the usual garlicky presentation but a light dish of shrimp pan-fried until slightly crusty and mixed with tomatoes and feta cheese. Outstanding.
Pastitsio and moussaka are hearty and homey. The peasant salad, that typical Greek blend of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, feta cheese and olives, tasted just like the salads served everywhere in Greece, said a recent visitor to that country. And the shish kebab, made with beef, chicken or pork, was as plain tasting as that the traveler encountered overseas, not dolled up with heady seasonings to make it self-consciously "foreign." The beef, however, was rather tough. Could that have been a matter of authenticity?
The flaky spinach turnovers, the gyro sandwich and the taramosalata, which is a fish roe spread that goes with pita bread, are satisfactory. The dolmas, grape-leaf-wrapped rice rolls, are amply flavored with dill and taste slightly sweet.
Other Greek appetizers that I didn't have a chance to try include cheese pie, fried squid and cheese pan-fried in olive oil.
Aside from the Greek food, the restaurant has a salad bar, a deli counter that produces sandwiches to order and an ample stock of dishes that are general in appeal, including hamburgers, fruit and pasta salads, broiled fish and a New York steak that arrived perfectly cooked and tender, unlike the chewy shish kebab. The main dishes are accompanied by plain boiled vegetables like carrots and broccoli that do not excite the imagination, and rice or potatoes.
The small wine list is composed mostly of California selections. But make a point of trying the Naoussa, a dry red wine that will surprise those who lump all Greek wines with the resinous retsina. Naoussa is produced in Macedonia in the northern part of Greece.
Prices are not overwhelming. The theatrical combination sandwiches are $5.95, which includes coleslaw and French fries. The New York steak dinner, broiled fresh fish and scampi, at $9.75, are the most expensive dinners. The peasant salad is $4.25 for a bowl that contains enough for two.
The Upstage Cafe also has Greek pastry and cheesecake that is made there. The cheesecake comes plain or topped with strawberries and kiwi. One night, when I couldn't decide what flavor of gelati to try, the waiter brought a sampling of several flavors, each presented on a little spoon. And when it started to rain, the same waiter offered to go out to my car and bring in the umbrella that I had forgotten. Now that is service.
The Begakis family also has the Patio Deli at 3277 Wilshire Blvd., which concentrates on lunch. The Upstage Cafe, a more ambitious place with a full kitchen, is a newer enterprise that opened eight months ago.
Upstage Cafe, 3750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 739-9913. Open Monday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Tuesday through Friday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Open until 1 a.m. on performance nights at the Wiltern Theater. Reservations accepted for groups of six or more at lunch. Reservations not necessary at night. Visa and MasterCard accepted. Partially validated parking in lot next to the building. Street parking is usually available at night.