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That Cuisine And Nicotine Connection . . .

September 28, 1986|JUDITH SIMS | Sims, a Times copy editor, is an ex-smoker. All together now: "They're the worst kind!"

Smokers, gather round: Wanna know where you can puff with impunity and light up without guilt? Where your butts are welcome and your smoke tolerated? Want to inhale deeply in elegant, expensive surroundings?

Then head right out to Los Angeles' finest restaurants.

Los Angeles restaurants are currently exempt from the smoking laws that affect offices and other work sites. They don't have to cater to clean-air fanatics, and most of them don't. This situation may change: The Los Angeles City Council is about to ponder a proposed amendment to the present no-smoking ordinance that would extend its jurisdiction to restaurants. While several restaurant chains already offer voluntary no-smoking sections, only one high-price finest-food establishment is even contemplating a no-smoking section.

"It just doesn't work," says Roy Yamaguchi, chef-owner of 385 North. "From a business standpoint it's just not practical. Let's say the back half of the restaurant is no-smoking. What happens when people are coming in and they're all smokers? You could have 10 people with reservations come in and we'd have to tell them to wait because all those empty seats in the back are for nonsmokers. Our main concern is always to take care of the customers; we are in business to serve people." But Yamaguchi also serves nonsmokers.

"(The absence of a no-smoking section) doesn't seem to bother people to that extent," he says. "We have pretty high ceilings, the smoke tends to go up." And if anyone fired up a cigar, Yamaguchi says he would "ask that table to go to the bar and I'd buy them a cognac."

Yamaguchi's restaurant has two main rooms plus a private dining room, similar in size to Michael's in Santa Monica--another restaurant with excellent food and a laissez-faire attitude toward smoke. "We don't have a no-smoking section per se," said one Michael's manager, Jim Castle, "and we don't allow cigar or pipe smoking anywhere." If patrons do request no-smoking--a rare event, Castle says--they are seated in the garden room between the dining room and the outdoor patio. But isn't it possible that a smoker could be seated next to a nonsmoker in the garden room? "Yes, but it's almost outside."

"Big deal!" scoffs a nonsmoking friend. "Outside is no better than air conditioning. The same breeze that blows the smoke away from me can also blow it right up my nose."

Many of the newer restaurants are one big (or small) room, not so easily divided into separate areas. Restaurant owners claim, with some justification, that it's futile to bisect one room into smoking and nonsmoking when it's all the same air.

"That's just dumb," retorts my nonsmoking friend. "A cigarette across the room is less annoying than one at the next table. Period."

"It's not in my best interests to police my customers," Ken Frank says flatly. Frank, owner-chef at one-room La Toque, won't divide his restaurant, he says--but he does police his customers to some extent, not allowing them to smoke cigars, pipes or clove cigarettes.

"Smokers need to be considerate of nonsmokers," Frank says. Are they? "Absolutely not. Cigar smokers are the worst."

In Los Angeles those few restaurants that have set aside no-smoking sections are mostly non-nouvelle chains: Hamburger Hamlet, Denny's, Magic Pan, Sizzler--or natural foods restaurants like the Good Earth and Chez Naturel, with no representative of L.A.'s finest--yet.

Trumps, the restaurant with the concrete tables, has a heart of gold where nonsmokers are concerned. Once construction on the front "terrace" is completed, that room will be restricted to nonsmokers. But Trumps will be careful not to offend; incoming patrons, says co-manager Julia Washington, will not be asked if they want a no-smoking section. Rather, those customers who request a nonsmoking area will be accommodated. "We haven't had that many requests," Washington says.

Hamburger Hamlet owner Marilyn Lewis says her restaurants set aside no-smoking areas, usually about one-third of the space, because her customers demanded it. "They ask for everything they want. If they want margarine instead of butter, or skim milk--they wanted decaf coffee before anyone knew what it was--they tell us." And Lewis listens.

But such dialogue is never heard in a nouvelle palace; not one chef or manager could remember more than one or two such requests in the last year.

A nonsmoking TV producer of my acquaintance thinks that people who go to those classy restaurants just don't care about such things. "People kill for certain tables at Spago, they don't care whether they're smoking or not. I mean, talk about a nonsensical thing--a power table. " And at some of the overbooked restaurants in Los Angeles, just getting in is like storming Omaha Beach; better not make a fuss about the hazy air.

But maybe a fuss could change a restaurant owner's mind and policy. "Anything is possible," Yamaguchi says.

"I suppose if enough people asked, I'd reconsider," Frank says.

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