Kate Mantilini, 9101 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (213) 278-3699. Open Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.-3 a.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m.-3 a.m. Closed Sunday. Full bar. Validated parking. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$90.
"We thank Musso and Frank, Ollie Hammonds and Armstrong Schroeder for the inspiration for this menu," is what it says on the menu at Kate Mantilini. Most people in Los Angeles know that the venerable Musso's is the oldest restaurant in Hollywood. Ollie Hammond's is somewhat less familiar; it was a 24-hour steak joint that sat on La Cienega in the '50s, '60s and early '70s, the sort of place that people went to late at night after the fights. As for Armstrong Schroeder, it was another manly sort of place that once thrilled the diners of Beverly Hills.
"Does that mean they're serving real food?" asked the Reluctant Gourmet. I told him I thought that it did. He was still suspicious. "Can I have a steak?" he asked. "And potatoes," I promised. "I'm not eating any sissy stuff," he warned, sure that there was trickery involved. I told him that would be no problem. "There is one little thing," I began. "I knew it!" he said. "What might that be?" "They don't take reservations."
The RG hates to wait in line; ordinarily, he would have refused to go on general principles. But all that old-time talk had piqued his curiosity. As we drove to the restaurant, I told him that Kate Mantilini had been a boxing promoter in the '40s, a close friend of the uncle of the restaurant's owner, Marilyn Lewis. (Lewis and her husband Harry are also responsible for the Hamburger Hamlet chain.) The RG approves of boxing, and this made him more favorably disposed toward the restaurant--at least until we got there.
"Is that it?" he cried, dismayed. "That modern, overdesigned thing on the corner?" I said that it was. "I think I've changed my mind," he was saying as we walked in and saw the waiting crowd. Then the RG took a look around at the extreme modern room with its enormous boxing mural floating along one wall and sighed. "I think I need a drink," he said.
In fact, he had a couple while we waited for our table. The place was packed; the wait stretched on. By the time we slid into one of the booths (these offer privacy, your own window on the world and very hard seats), the RG had taken a violent dislike to Kate and everything about her. He looked glumly at the granite table with its napkin racks, its bottles of catsup, its carafe of water, and muttered "too cute" under his breath.
The RG may have been disappointed with the looks of the place, but the menu was exactly what he'd expected. It was straightforward, huge and very American, and as he perused it he began to look happier. Then the waiter arrived with the bread and I actually saw him smile. "Well," said the RG in a slightly mollified tone, "the bread at least was worth waiting for." This crusty sourdough loaf was very good indeed, although it would have been even better had it not been served with whipped butter.
The shrimp cocktail was another source of happiness; the shrimps were big and perfectly cooked. He approved of the clams casino too, an honest presentation of clams baked in the shell with bacon. Fried whitebait were merely mushy, but the 45-mile fried shrimp ("They call them that because they're supposed to be so good that you would be willing to walk 45 miles for them," said our waiter) were crisp and delicious.
"Maybe," said the RG, "this place will be good after all." But his steak was a big disappointment--they were out of the Porterhouse (they have been every time I've ordered it) and the T-bone was thin, chewy and not very tasty. "It's $22 and it doesn't even come with potatoes," he growled.
I was no happier with my special whole grilled pompano. The skin had taken on a bitter flavor from its contact with the grill, and at $19 for a tiny fish it seemed remarkably expensive. With the exception ofa big meaty lamb shank with braised vegetables (well priced at $14), the foods our friends were eating weren't very satisfying either: linguine with clams was barely edible, and spaghetti with meatballs was downright awful.
We consoled ourselves with hash browns (a huge crusty pile of potatoes not to be missed), marinated peppers and spinach sauteed with garlic. "I'd come for bread and potatoes any day," said one friend. The RG wasn't convinced.
The desserts, however, were the final blow. The apple pie had a crust like cardboard and so much spice that you could barely taste the apples. With a scoop of ice cream it cost $6.50. "Pretty pricey," said the RG. We didn't like the chocolate banana cake either (nor its $4.95 price tag). And what they called strawberry shortcake turned out to be white cake filled with a kind of cream that shivered when you touched it.
"You can have it," said the RG, "but give me Musso's any day."