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Faxes Take Guesswork Out of Eating Out

For diners who want to take no chances, many restaurants let customers order ahead--for menus.

December 20, 1996|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So you're looking for the perfect restaurant, and your dinner guests are picky. One is on a restricted fat diet. Or you're on a restricted budget. Were the entrees at the place that got the great review $12--or $22?

Instead of just showing up and taking your chances, you can get the menu faxed to you.

Gone are the days when all a restaurant did was cook your food and bring it to the table. Along with other services like takeout, delivery and putting the sauce on the side, most restaurants will now fax you their menus.

In an age when businesses fax businesses and friends fax friends, it was inevitable that restaurants would join the electronic brigade to accommodate the quirks of their customers. And that's the vast majority of them too. From the Original Pantry and Canter's to Spago and Drai's Cafe. If the management writes it down on paper, someone will slip it into a fax machine for you.

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"We've been doing it since the first day we opened 2 1/2 years ago," said Elio Desanto, the manager of Il Moro, a trendy Italian eatery on the Westside. The restaurant's four to five daily requests for faxed menus come mainly from the towering office buildings on nearby Olympic Avenue where workers phone in takeout orders.

Even restaurants with voluminous menus will feed them into their fax machines. The Cheesecake Factory in Brentwood won't take your reservation (unless you're a party of seven and it's before 6 p.m.), but employees have taken the restaurant's 15-page spiral-bound booklet of a menu--many of those pages are advertisements--and condensed it to eight pages for faxing. "It takes a few minutes," said Max Pepe, the manager.

Part of why they do it is to accommodate the offices in the area as well as people unfamiliar with the menu. Sometimes customers just want part of the menu faxed. "People call and ask for certain pages--the pasta page or just the salad page," Pepe said.

The fax machine at the 24-hour Canter's deli and restaurant in the Fairfax district is kept hopping by a mix of lunch-seeking entertainment business offices as well as midnight-oil-burning recording studios that have been known to request a faxed menu then order sandwiches and two dozen cappuccinos to go.

Canter's has been offering faxed menus since the restaurant got a fax machine about four years ago. "We find that more people are requesting the menus, but they don't fax over the order," said Terri Bloomgarden, one of the owners. "They call back."

Offices have been requesting menus by fax for several years. At the production offices of "The Simpsons" on the 20th Century Fox lot, Debbie Jackson--one of the production assistants charged with the dreary task of fetching lunch for nearly 30 writers, producers and their assistants--hoards faxed menus from restaurants ranging from Kentucky Fried Chicken to La Bruschetta.

Others do it for their own personal edification. Westside fitness trainers Steven Kates and David Kelmenson have restaurants fax menus to their training studio so they can carefully plan their dinners--not for when they're dieting but for when they're bingeing.

The star-studded Spago may not seat you at a fabulous table, but it will fax you its one-page menu. Assistant manager Jenne Lee said the restaurant's half a dozen daily requests for menus come from "regular people, companies who are having parties, people who are just curious."

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Of course, for some restaurants faxing is a high concept--that is only sometimes successfully executed. The venerable downtown Original Pantry won't take credit cards, but it will fax you a menu until 9 p.m.--provided someone is in the office. (You may have to leave a message on the machine.)

David Daviston, a host at a Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, said the restaurant would fax a menu, but on one midafternoon a telephoned request was turned away with the explanation that no one was in the office to fax it. (Of the four Roscoe's restaurants, only one has an office with a fax machine.) Try the next day, the staffer said.

"The secretary leaves at 2 p.m.," Daviston said later. He suggested calling Monday through Friday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. But expect the secretary to be busy. "There's only one girl who works in there," he said. "She's got other things to do besides fax menus."

There are some exceptions to the fax rule. The Ivy, one of the most highly rated restaurants in town and a mecca for celebrities, does not participate.

"You know, some people like to type on manual typewriters and some have joined the Computer Age," said Lynn von Kersting, who co-owns the restaurant with her chef husband, Richard Irving. They enforce the same policy at their Santa Monica restaurant, The Ivy at the Shore. "We don't want to be part of the fax generation," von Kersting said.

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As she sees it, the no-fax policy goes along with the couple's old-fashioned emphasis on home-grown vegetables, no compact discs--she plays swing music on tape--and no cameras. The restaurant hires off-duty police officers to shoo away paparazzi intent on snapping their famous guests.

"It's all that kind of intrusiveness that we don't like," said von Kersting.

Besides, she said, "most of the people who come here, quite frankly, come here frequently." But if you don't, she says, the restaurant offers another old-fashioned service--someone will talk to you: "We're happy to go over the entire menu with someone and discuss ingredients."

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