The sign behind the cash register at Cafe Casino reads "Plats Chauds a Emporter"-- hot food to go . But it is the alfresco setting and laissez faire ambiance, not the food, that attract a cosmopolitan clientele to the Ocean Avenue eatery and remind them of their favorite sidewalk cafes on the Mediterranean.
Or the Danube.
Or the Seine.
Call it a living language laboratory, a xenophobe's nightmare, a United Nations with espresso. Whatever you call it, right here where Arizona meets Ocean, Santa Monica meets Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The banter, and the manner of the place, have a intriguing foreign accent.
The cafe is at its most international on Sundays, when 75% to 80% of its patrons are from other countries, according to Michael Casner, the 27-year-old food and beverage manager. Casner's origins are Vietnamese and French, so he understands perfectly what draws an international crowd to the patio of his establishment. Nodding past the white outdoor tables and colorful snapdragon-filled planters, toward the Palisades and palm trees across the street, he says, "Some people say this place is pure California, but the view reminds me very much of the Riviera."
Casner is not the only one this day to recall a distant place. The open-air dining and palm-lined view of the Pacific evoke a rainbow of memories for Cafe Casino's Sunday patrons.
Simone, a former Parisienne who won't give her last name, lives with her husband, Bob, in Northridge, but keeps a little bit of Paris in her life by visiting the cafe every weekend or two for lunch and conversation--in French, of course.
"It's always a show here," Simone says, laughing. "The ones who sit watch the ones who walk, and the ones who walk watch the ones who sit." A newspaper vendor often strolls through the patio, she says nostalgically, "just like in Paris."
Also enjoying the show are Eva Balo and Anne Tallian, seated at an outdoor table shaded by an umbrella. Thirty years ago, they were schoolmates in Budapest and would frequent the gracious, terraced coffee houses along the Danube. Now Balo is a confirmed Angeleno and Tallian a Philadelphian who makes periodic trips to Los Angeles--trips that always include a Sunday outing with her friend to Cafe Casino.
"We hear lots of Hungarian here," says Balo, who lives in Los Feliz. Both women agree that the cafe is reminiscent of the coffee houses of their youth. "But the weather's much nicer here," Balo points out.
For Ettie Peretz of Encino, an Israeli-American, the patio is a regular station on her weekend bike treks from Marina del Rey. She meets Yoram Roman and several other Israeli friends for brunch and a book swap. Today, they are exchanging critiques along with the latest Hebrew-language paperbacks. The palm trees, sea view and hubbub remind them, they say, of the busy beachfront cafes in Tel Aviv.
Contributing to the polyglot style of place are seven former Czechoslovaks seated around a table, laughing and joking in their native tongue, and discussing a Czech dance they attended the previous night.
"We always come here when we're in L.A.," says Eva von Rheinwald, of San Diego. "It's not like American places that have no air, air conditioning and no light. It's a place to sit and chat. . . . The waiters don't stand around waiting for you to leave." And indeed, her group lingers for hours enjoying the sunshine and camaraderie.
A no-pressure, European approach is house policy, Casner says. Food is served cafeteria-style and features French dishes, and a coffee bar dispenses pastries and a variety of coffees.
"People can come here and sit and people-watch or do what they please, not like an American restaurant," he says. (In a sense, the cafe isn't an American restaurant; it's part of a U.S. chain owned by Casino de France, a French-based international conglomerate that operates restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets and wholesale food outlets.)
The sit-and-sip policy extends to the well-heeled and homeless alike, according to Casner. "We don't discriminate (against the homeless) even though sometimes it's a burden on us," he says.
"Sometimes we feel that people who are well dressed and clean and shaved are made uncomfortable. It's up to me to make a judgment whether to serve a bum who comes up from the beach and has enough (money) for a cup of coffee. If he sits and doesn't disturb people, it's fine. If he makes a nuisance, I ask him to leave."
There is a rhythm to his business, the manager says. "Early Sunday mornings, the Americans come," and then about noon, the Europeans and Asians start to fill up the patio. Mid- to late Sunday afternoon, Casner says, is a favorite gathering time for Iranians.
"Lots of Persians come in from the Valley," Casner says. "It's a big event for them. Sometimes they run into people they haven't seen since Tehran. They talk about the way it used to be there before the revolution, and about their new life here."