Perino's, 4101 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 487-0000. Open for lunch Monday-Friday; for dinner Monday-Saturday. Valet parking. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $60-$120.
First, a few candid comments, culled from companions while dining at Perino's:
"If they go out of business, the bread slicer could probably get work as a brain surgeon." (The signature toast is made of black bread sliced paper thin and topped with melted cheese. Be sure and eat a lot of it.)
"The service is so solicitous, I feel like I'm eating dinner with God." (They are nice to you the first time you eat there. "Welcome back," they cry joyfully when you return. On the third visit you get the Rockefeller treatment, and on the fourth they greet you as if you were their savior. I have a terrible fear that by the fifth visit they just might start treating you like a fool.)
"This pink makes everybody look 10 years younger." (It is the very pinkest place I have ever eaten in. Dining in the warm glow of this room makes everybody look radiant. In fact, you tend to look at the meal through such rose-colored glasses that even the \o7 food\f7 looks remarkably fit.)
"What are \o7 they\f7 doing here? The management should have made them stay in the bar instead of coming in here and making everybody nervous." (\o7 They\f7 were the policemen who had come to investigate a robbery. A diner, waiting for the valet to fetch his car, was relieved of his wallet at gunpoint. The outcome? Good news. The cops were so quick they caught the thief as he made his getaway. The moral?: Bad news. Eating at Perino's can be a lot more exciting than it used to be.)
Next, a short history of Perino's. Started in 1932 by Alex Perino, a restaurateur of the old school, the place was a Los Angeles legend. Everybody ate there (Cole Porter, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bugsy Siegel). It was the sort of restaurant whose bartender bragged that ordinary ice ruined his martinis. He used French vermouth, English pot still gin, and ice that was delivered daily, directly to the bar so that it did not go through the kitchen and pick up any fishy flavors.
In 1949 Perino's moved to its present location at the corner of Wilshire and Norton. It cost $200,000 to ready the building for the restaurant; in those days that was a terrific sum. The oval dining room was a Technicolored dream done in tones of rose. It looked like a powder puff, a boudoir, a place for Venus on the half shell. Crystal twinkled, chandeliers dripped from the ceiling, mirrors reflected everything.
In 1969, Perino sold the restaurant to Frank Esgro, who ran it until 1983. Then, in an attempt to expand, Esgro moved into lavish downtown quarters. By the end of 1984, Esgro claimed to have lost over $7.5 million, and in early '85 the restaurant declared bankruptcy. While the downtown restaurants closed, the original stumbled on. Veteran waiters had to watch what was once the most expensive restaurant in Los Angeles serve a $12.50 buffet. "Unwashed people in jeans were eating here," lamented one of them. A year ago the doors were finally padlocked.
But suddenly this spring things looked up. An Italian company came riding to the rescue. They lovingly restored the old restaurant, hired a lot of the old staff (including longtime chef Mike Olmeda) and flung open the doors. Could history repeat itself?
Now a few vignettes:
1--"I hope they make it this time," said my first guest, an admiring longtime customer who was thrilled to see the old place back in business. He loved the sparkle of the room, approved the spiffy new upholstery, the shine on the silver, the flowers everywhere. The maitre 'd greeted him like a brother returning from the war. It was all very touching.
But we were touched in a different way by what we ate, and appalled at the cost of the wines. (For example, a 1980 Badia e Coltibuono Chianti Riserva, which retails for $9, sells for $29 on the list.) When we asked the sommelier why the prices were so high he replied that the rent was $30,000 a month.
But another insult was yet to come. A couple of weeks later, after my First Impressions appeared in print, I got a letter from the restaurant's publicist. "At the risk of insulting you . . . ," it began, and then went on to say that the sommelier knew me well, had personally greeted each customer, and did not recall seeing me in the restaurant. "He wonders," it went on, "if someone gave you incorrect information. . . ." (\o7 I\f7 wonder who he thinks I am.)
2--On my next visit, the parking-lot holdup occurred. That was pretty exciting. But then, one of my guests was pretty excited when her $16 shrimp cocktail turned out to contain one whole shrimp and two cut-up shrimp, drowned in Russian dressing. Period. "This is an outrage!" she fumed.