I'll put my cards right on the table: mention singing in restaurants and I get these memories of checkered-cloth joints where violinists start sawing away near your elbow just as you're about to put a meatball in your mouth. I see suburban dinner theaters where old warhorse menus compete with old warhorse musicales and worse, those brightly lit places where you're supposed to sing along.
There is nothing checkered-cloth about Verdi. No warhorse menu here. Perhaps it's a genre breakthrough. Clean-lined, elegant and designed by Morphosis architects, it's absolutely pretty and pink. There are fresh flowers on the table. The lighting is dramatic and serene. The musicians and singers are professionals, as are the smooth-serving staff in short frock coats. (While they don't sing, they add a definite style. The spirited captain, for one, might have waltzed right out of "Die Fledermaus.")
And the cuisine? Like the scene, it is festive yet refined. My accomplice (my father, a longtime operatic tenor in the shower) and I were pleased. One evening we began with the fresh, pesto-laced minestrone served in a gleaming copper pot and worked our way through to a crazy chocolate meringue and mousse fantasie. (The three-course, fixed-price $28.50 menu with a choice of two entrees is available every night except for Fridays and Saturdays.) The entree on the evening we sampled it, veal scaloppine with olives, tomatoes and capers accompanied by carrots and green beans, was excellent.
No doubt about it, there is something surreal about wrapping your mouth around a forkful of orecchiette (small ear-shaped pasta, which in this case came handsomely adorned with tomatoes, pine nuts and broccoli in a gentle tomato broth) while someone is singing anything several feet in front of you.
Serving comes to a near halt while the performers are on the small stage but people keep eating--you hear every clink of glass and twang of fork. Twenty-minute performances take place several times a night. Food and drink arrive between arias as well as between sets.
Sometime after raising an eyebrow over a perfunctory tomato and basil salad and relishing the classic rendition of the fettuccine al pesto, but definitely before polishing off the juicy grilled chicken breasts wrapped up in translucent veils of braised lettuce, Dad belted out "Funiculi Funicula" in full voice. (In certain numbers, the audience is invited to sing along.) Music ranges from operas and operetta selections to excerpts from Broadway musicals. There's everything from "Rigoletto" and "Fiddler on the Roof" to a Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy night. A free bimonthly schedule is sent out on request.
The question for the food reviewer is, of course, would you go there for the food alone? We did that one MacDonald and Eddy night and have to report our feelings were mixed. Delicate grilled salmon trout came with a completely splendid balsamic vinegar and chive sauce and a huge veal chop ($25) was equally fine, but the accompanying vegetables had been heavily salted. (Our waiter graciously brought a dish of snappier, unsalted vegetables when we complained.) Still, despite the zippy arugula with lemony dressing, a calamari and shrimp appetizer was totally bland and the insalata quattro stagioni , pretty as could be, was pricey at $9 for avocado, thin slices of ordinary mushrooms, canned hearts of palm and a trace of radicchio.
There is no cover charge at Verdi and for an evening's entertainment it's well worth the price, particularly if you go the prezzo fisso route. Still, it's pretty clear that the music is the thing. When we left before the singing started, the hosts seemed astonished and we, in turn, felt abashed, as though we were leaving a party before the guest of honor had arrived.
On the other hand, one needn't come for a full meal to enjoy the musical events--the bar area has full view of the stage and many dishes (aside from the slew of deliciously baroque made-on-the premises desserts) are served there. Even if you have the temperament of a W. C. Fields, I think you might find Verdi a delicious evening of fun.
Verdi, ristorante di musica, 1519 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (213) 393-0706. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 6 p.m.-2 a.m. (Dinner served until 11:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, until 10 p.m. on other nights. Light menu available until midnight. Desserts and beverages until closing time.) Valet parking. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $45-$90.