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The Birth of Two Restaurants: The Agony and the Economics

August 27, 1989|Laurie Ochoa

It's a timeless statistic: Half of all new restaurants--about a thousand every year in L.A. County--will close within a year of opening. Thirty percent of the survivors won't last through the second year. Considerably fewer become, or even aspire to become, important restaurants--the restaurants such as Spago and Citrus that impress critics and have a lasting effect on the way we eat. Some years, only one new restaurant makes it really big. This summer, there might be two.

They are Campanile and Patina, the two most anticipated restaurants of the year.

Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton are the husband-and-wife team behind Campanile (624 S. La Brea Ave.) and the restaurant's adjoining La Brea Bakery. (He cooks, she bakes and does dessert.) A couple of years ago the couple left Spago for a highly publicized stint at Maxwell's Plum in New York. Now they're back.

Joachim and Christine Splichal have also returned to L.A. with Patina (5955 Melrose Ave.). He's fed the rich and famous at Westwood's exclusive Regency Club. Critics loved Splichal's food at Max au Triangle in Beverly Hills. And he was a hit in Chicago at 21 East and at New York's QV. Now he wants another shot at the L.A. public.

If ever two projects seemed destined to progress smoothly, it was Patina and Campanile. But as Calendar discovered, no restaurant ever opens easily. We spent a year tracking the progress and delays--the waits, the second guessing, the final frantic moments before the first customer arrives.

If you happened to glance toward the skylight at Campanile about 9 o'clock on the night it opened, you would have seen the restaurant's flood-lit bell tower, the moon . . . and a well-dressed man on all fours directly overhead, creeping across the edge of the glass like Spiderman--if you can imagine Spiderman in Armani.

The man lunged for something just beyond the line of sight, then peered goggle-eyed down at the crowd of diners some 40 feet below.

The alpinist, Campanile's Austrian-born manager, Manfred Krankl, hadn't gone berserk from opening-night jitters--he simply hadn't figured out a better way to adjust the air conditioner.

"You can say a thousand times to yourself, 'Yeah, yeah, it's going to be hard,' " Krankl said later that night. "But then you open up and, of course, something unexpected goes wrong."

Just ask Joachim and Christine Splichal, who opened Patina on the site of the old Le St. Germain three weeks ago. It was a half-hour before the restaurant's first customers were to arrive and things were going smoothly . . . until the dinner rolls, fresh from the oven, were presented to Joachim. He took one into his hands and kneaded it as if it were unbaked dough. He grimaced. "This is hard as a rock!" he barked. Worse, it was salty. And there was no time to bake more. The \o7 brioche \f7 were no better.

"This has nothing to do with bread!" he said after inspecting a loaf. "You could kill three with this thing, it's so hard." But Splichal, a chef famous for his perfectionism, had no choice: The bread would be served anyway.

"Oh, you're one of \o7 those \f7 places," the voice on the phone accused. "I'm sorry," said the woman taking the call. "We really don't have any tables left at 8 o'clock."

Owners Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton thought their restaurant would be the kind of place people could drop into spontaneously, but though Campanile has been in business just two months, those tables at 8 were booked three weeks ago.

Tom Selleck's been to Campanile. Henry Winkler ate there during the restaurant's first week--he's an investor. So is Dustin Hoffman.

Don Rickles came in with Bob Newhart one night. Walked right up to Mark Peel, reached across the counter that separates the kitchen from the dining room and shook Peel's hand. "Hi ya, chef!" he said.

Patrick Swayze's been in--he sat up in the balcony so he wouldn't be noticed. (He was.) Harry Shearer liked his table under the skylight with a view of the open kitchen.

Bette Midler \o7 would \f7 have come in, with Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. But when Midler's assistant called to confirm the reservation, she was told "Bette Midler doesn't have a reservation; she's on the waiting list."

"The waiting list!" Krankl said as he told the story. "Aye, aye, aye, we don't have a \o7 waiting \f7 list--she really had a reservation."

On the Friday night Patina opened three weeks ago, Campanile served a crowd of 280. Patina booked just 29 people . . . on purpose. "If you get too busy too fast, you lose control," Joachim Splichal says. "Maybe the fish goes out late to one table, or some woman doesn't get her water on time. You'd like to think that the customers who come to a place during the first few weeks of a restaurant's life would be very forgiving. But they're not. If a guy's out 200 bucks for dinner, he doesn't care if it's your first week or your 20th. And every guy who leaves unhappy is going to tell at least 10 friends about his lousy experience. I don't need that."

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