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BIRTH of a RESTAURANT : The Idea Was to Serve Simple Food in a Friendly Atmosphere--But Getting to Opening Night Took a Year of Frustrating Setbacks and Small Triumphs : THE$500,000 GAMBLE

February 14, 1988|KAREN STABINER | Stabiner, a Santa Monica writer, is writing a book about the 1947 Overell murder case.

THE FIRST ORDER on the first night of business at Trattoria Angeli comes into the kitchen five minutes before the official 6 o'clock opening. The couple at Table 33 want to split the scamorza ala griglia appetizer, and executive chef Evan Kleiman hovers as one of her line cooks arranges the smoked mozzarella on a plate and heats it in the salamander. When it comes out, Kleiman adds the topping of diced tomatoes and oregano and wipes the raised edges of the plate clean. She places it on a larger serving plate, turns it at an angle to see how it will look in front of the customer--and with a decisive shove puts it up on the counter. The runner, whose sole purpose in his working life is to get dishes to diners as soon as they are ready, picks it up and heads across the room.

Riding on that hot plate is more than a half-million dollars, the professional future and personal fulfillment of Kleiman and her partner, John Strobel, and the fates of 35 investors and 55 full- and part-time employees. Opening a restaurant is the most popular and least sensible entrepreneurial gamble in the United States: More than 13,000 restaurants opened or changed hands in 1986, about 1,000 of them in Los Angeles County, according to the California Restaurant Assn. Sixty-five percent will fail within two years.

Despite the odds, the notion of having a place of your own is a seductive one. You get to be your own boss and, essentially, have lots of people over for dinner for a living. But it is hardly that simple. A restaurateur needs abilities that have nothing to do with a saute pan: fund-raising, interior design, brute strength, personnel and public relations savvy and an almost religious perseverance. It also helps to be gracious, consistent and lucky.

Kleiman, 34, and Strobel, 33, aren't novices. Since December, 1984, they've run Angeli Caffe, a hip hole-in-the-wall in West Hollywood. But Trattoria Angeli is bigger, fancier, with a more ambitious menu. Success is a steep climb. They need to gross $1.8 million annually to break even, which translates into 220 dinners and 75 lunches sold every day, six days a week, from now on.

The runner sets down the appetizer, and the couple pick up their forks. After a year and a half of effort, it all comes down to whether these strangers like their food.

THE BEGINNING: BEYOND PIZZA

EVAN KLEIMAN AND JOHN STROBELwere hardly a matched set when they met in the summer of 1983. She had little interest in what happened outside the kitchen, while he thrived on a restaurant's bustling front room; she was a happy anachronism, with her waist-length wavy auburn hair, grape-cluster earrings and love of rustic Italian food, but he preferred up-to-date dress shirts, pleated pants and fine wines poured at power tables.

They had one crucial thing in common, though--they were fed up with working for other people and shared the dream of having their own restaurant. Kleiman, who had been the night chef at Mangia and executive chef at Verdi, was catering free-lance. Strobel had maneuvered the tricky front room as the night manager at Morton's, the West Hollywood eatery where the contents of one's plate were arguably less important than the location of one's table, as well as the Rangoon Racquet Club and the Seventh Street Bistro. He was prepared to "sell pencils in the street" and lean on his wife's paycheck to maintain his autonomy.

In December of 1984, on a meager $72,500, most of which came from their families, they opened Angeli Caffe and Pizzeria--"My floor plan and her food," said Strobel--a 17-foot Melrose Avenue storefront with 12 tables and a kitchen so narrow that two people could not stand in it side by side.

It was a quick hit. They expanded, and still had people standing in line. At the end of 1985, only a year after they opened, the question arose: Why not another one? Thanks to Wolfgang Puck's move from Ma Maison to his own Spago, L.A. chefs were no longer anonymous drones. Los Angeles, long known as a city of back-yard barbecues, was becoming restaurant-obsessed--from Chinese palaces in Monterey Park, to trendy grills in Pasadena, to French bistros in the San Fernando Valley. People with money started looking for a promising restaurateur to subsidize. Now, Kleiman and Strobel could likely find backers for the place they couldn't afford the first time. Strobel figured they'd need $500,000 to do it right.

A one-time aspiring actor who had become "frustrated" handling the small front room on Melrose, Strobel liked the idea of a bigger stage. "If I were a painter, I'd paint. If I were a sculptor, I'd sculpt. I'm a restaurateur," he said. "I open restaurants." Kleiman was tempted by the chance to create a more varied menu--and they didn't mind the opportunity to increase their incomes, which ran about $35,000 annually, each, for an over-60-hour week. Still, on a practical level, it was daunting--a half-million dollars in other people's money bet on their ability to spread themselves twice as thin.

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