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UP ALL NIGHT / BILL HIGGINS

Crowded House : China Club's Back and Packing 'Em In--With No Drop in Caliber of Performer or Patron

September 26, 1993|BILL HIGGINS

At first, it's impossible to hear what Tatou's Rudolf is saying. You have to move closer and ask him to shout.

"This is the loudest dinner on the Westside," is what the restaurant/club's creative director is saying. Yes. It would be hard to dispute that. What with a small hill of amplifiers reverberating at the rear of the dining room, plus a mountain of them on the stage with the band, it would be difficult to hear a cruise missile explode, never mind conversation.

"The waiters go a little bit crazy," Rudolf yells. But not from the noise. From the crowding. Every millimeter of floor space is covered with bodies. It's as though the theme of the club is department-store-elevator-at-Christmas. Patrons are hunched on the backs of the elegant banquettes so they can see over the mob. Narrow walkways are all the waiters have to work with.

"Get aggressive, honey. Get aggressive," one waitress says to another who isn't clawing her way through the human wall.

This isn't just another chew-and-schmooze evening at a Beverly Hills restaurant. No. This is Monday, when the China Club reincarnates at Tatou, rekindling memories of what seems another era--even if that era was only a couple years ago.

Once, the China Club had a building of its own, at Selma and Argyle in Hollywood. What made the club famous were the Monday night "projams" when musicians of the caliber of Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder or Jeff Beck would play together.

The club did incredibly well. Many great musicians performed; many stars watched. The club probably did too well since the final nail in its coffin was a 90-day business permit suspension for overcrowding levied by the L.A. Fire Department in December, 1991. "Very dear friends of mine," says projam founder/promoter Allan Kaufman of the LAFD, with only the slightest glimmer of sarcasm.

Now the China Club is back on Mondays with the same caliber of musician--and the same caliber of stars. "It's got the same vibe as the old place," says Edgar Winter, before he goes on stage to jam with Lou Rawls. "But I'm a New York Texan who lives in Beverly Hills, so now it's only about seven blocks from where I live."

The move to an upscale ZIP code does add ambience. Tatou's dining room (it also has an upstairs club) is not down home. The restaurant's lavish design is meant to evoke the '40s Cocoanut Grove era of Hollywood glitz.

Onstage, the musicians face a dining room with a billowing white tented ceiling centered by a six-foot chandelier. The walls are draped with cream-colored fabric. Ten fiberglass palm trees wired with fiber-optic lights hang over the burgundy banquettes. Tatou was once described by a guest as having a "Lawrence of Arabia motif."

Even so, it's not the decor that draws the crowd that on this night includes Jack Nicholson and Sylvester Stallone. Besides Winter and Rawls, the performers are Mick Fleetwood with Dave Mason--backed by Black and White, the house band that includes Billy Preston, who played keyboard with the Beatles; Dallas Taylor, the drummer for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; guitarist Oliver Lieber, who also produces Paula Abdul; Jeff (Skunk) Baxter of the Doobie Brothers; bass player Mark Harris, of the band Venice; guitarist Elliot Easton of the Cars; plus a four-piece horn section and three back-up singers.

"There's basically no other place in town where real players can do something like this," says Taylor. "Maybe the crowd is here because it's the thing to do, but we're playing for the real joy of playing."

This time around the China Club scene may last a bit longer since Tatou has a massive upstairs club area (with a large-screen video of the dining room and bands) where overflow from the restaurant can be shuttled and patrons can dance.

"This time around," says Kaufman, "we're going to make sure we don't have too many people having too much fun in the room at the same time. We look to be doing this for years to come."

* Name: China Club at Tatou.

* Location: 233 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 274-9955.

* Cost: Admission is $15; beers are $3 and $4; drinks $5 to $8. Dinner entrees range from $15 to $29.

* Getting In: The projam starts at 10 p.m. Everyone wants to be in the restaurant area with the band. This is difficult to achieve. Either be famous, know someone famous or, more realistically, arrive early and wait in the bar. Or make early dinner reservations, then stay until the band starts.

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