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Every Little Cheese Seems to Scream Louise

January 16, 1994|KATHIE JENKINS

Owning one of the fastest-growing Italian restaurant chains in Southern California isn't enough for Bill Chait.

Although there are always plenty of hungry customers milling about his 12 Louise's Trattorias, he knows the food could be better. After all, it was Chait who in 1988 opened the upscale Beverly Restaurant and Market, where superchef Lydia Shire (now in Boston) turned out lobster club sandwiches and bread was flown in from France. (The place was a critical success, but it failed from a business standpoint.)

This year Chait and his partner, Howard Weinberg, are going to expand out of state (Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Columbus, Indianapolis, eventually New York City). And they've learned a few things since they took over the original Louise's in 1985. They plan to keep the prices and the 6 1/2-ounce pasta portions, but now will get serious about the food.

"I have been agonizing over this for about three years," says Chait. His goal is to serve simpler food with better ingredients. "We probably make the food more complex than it has to be."

His first priority was to hire a consultant who really knows Italian food. After months of searching, Chait hired restaurateur Mauro Vincenti, who owns Rex Il Ristorante in downtown Los Angeles and Pazzia on La Cienega. Vincenti will keep his restaurants and consult at Louise's.

"We operate at a $12 check average per person and some of his checks at Rex can be almost $100 per person," says Chait. "You wouldn't think the twain would meet, but they do. More than anything it's upgrading the product and then using it more efficiently."

At this moment, the two are happily driving around Italy shopping. They are buying Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Parma ham, cases of extra virgin olive oil. "There are about 100 different varieties of olive oil," says Chait. "Unless you have a firm understanding of the source, you don't know what you are getting. We want to break bread with the people where the food comes from."

"Louise's has the buying power that a single restaurant doesn't have," adds Vincenti, "and now I have that buying power. I can buy 1,000 wheels of cheese instead of 5 or 10 or 20. Now I can put my hand on the table and say, ' This is going to be the price.' "

Chait and Vincenti also went chef shopping. They plan to bring one of Italy's top chefs back with them. "It's not a guest-chef deal," says Chait, who won't give the new chef's name until the deal is firm. "We are going to create an ongoing consulting agreement where he comes over for a few months out of the year and works in all of the restaurants."

And will Louise's customers even notice a difference in the food? "My experience has been people are wedded to the way they are getting things so it will take a lot of time to adjust," says Chait. The new menu will be in effect in May. "But the day we start using Reggiano in a dish instead of the domestic cheese we've been using, there will be a big flavor difference. I can't imagine anyone saying, 'Gee, this doesn't taste good.' "


HOG HEAVEN: How much would you tip for a burger and fries? At Thunder Roadhouse, it's not unusual for customers to leave 30% or even more. But don't get the idea that L.A. diners are big tippers. It's just that the boutique biker restaurant is dimly lit and its hard to read the fine print on the check: A 15% service charge is automatically added to the bill. And no one bothers to mention it when they hand it to you.

Although the 15% service charge is separated out in the itemized guest check, it's not on the credit card slip. But there is a space left to add an additional tip.

"Our credit card vouchers are not set up (to itemize the service charge)," says manager Andrew Burton, "but we wrote it on the menu, and it's itemized on the guest check." According to Burton, Thunder Roadhouse began adding on a European-style service charge about three weeks after the restaurant opened last year because many of its customers are European tourists and they weren't tipping. "We can't have our servers working for minimum wage."


OPENINGS: Another Jerry's Famous Deli opens in Beverly Hills on Tuesday. . . . Nick Nickolas, who owns restaurants in Hawaii, Chicago and Boca Raton, has now opened Nick's Miami Beach, the largest restaurant in America. The $7-million, 30,000-square-foot restaurant/nightclub seats 1,000. The eclectic menu features fresh fish and seafood with the average dinner check in the $28 to $34 range. . . . Irwins Grill, which closed in 1989, has reopened in its former location on 5th and Spring in downtown Los Angeles. . . . A third Corleone's has opened on Rose Avenue in Venice (the others are on Melrose in Los Angeles and in West Hollywood on Sunset).


STILL OPEN: Although it was reported in this column that Trigo had closed, general manager Robert G. Yeager informs us the West Hollywood restaurant is still going strong and has even expanded its menu.

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