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Comfort Zone

The specialties at Billingsley's are steaks, seafood and stability.

June 26, 1997|JUAN HOVEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Restaurants are nothing if not transitory in the San Fernando Valley; places come and go all the time. But for every restaurant here today and gone tomorrow, there's another that is a fixture, changing little as years go by.

Billingsley's restaurant in Van Nuys is one such place. Drew Billingsley, who learned the business in a West Los Angeles restaurant founded by his father in 1948 and still run by his brother Glenn, opened the Van Nuys Billingsley's 28 years ago, and he still serves the food he served back then--steaks and seafood, mostly.

What's more, he still draws the same crowd--local families and business people seeking good, inexpensive food and a familiar atmosphere.

"We overlook the Van Nuys Golf Course, and people can sit and eat and watch the golfers," Billingsley says. "It's a night-lighted course, so our customers can watch the play over dinner, too.

"I raised my prices a bit just a few months ago for the first time in seven years. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had to. Other than that, I haven't changed anything here in a long time."

The price hikes--$1 for most items on the dinner menu, 30 cents for items on the lunch menu--haven't put dinner out of reach for ordinary folk. A full meal at Billingsley's maxes out at $12.

"We cut all our own steaks," Billingsley says, "for quality control. You can buy your meat pre-cut, but some suppliers will send you ends if you're a little guy like we are. If you make them send you the whole thing and cut it yourself, there's a big difference in quality.

"I used to cut every steak we served here. Now Armando does most of them."

That would be Armando Arrellano, Billingsley's chef, whose career bespeaks the stability that is the restaurant's hallmark. Arrellano was washing dishes in the kitchen one day 18 years ago when Billingsley asked if he wanted to learn to cook. It was an offer he couldn't refuse, and since then, other members of Arrellano's family have waited tables and worked the kitchen at Billingsley's. Many have gone on to other work, but not all. Sergio Arrellano, Armando's brother, tends bar.

Billingsley's is located at 6550 Odessa Ave., Van Nuys, (818) 785-7457. The original West Los Angeles Billingsley's is at 11326 W. Pico Blvd., (310) 477-1426.

*

Like Drew Billingsley, Mario Tidu, who runs La Finestra in Tarzana with partner Fabrizio Amati, keeps his menu pretty much the same, but he departs from form by experimenting with his seasonal specials, for which the restaurant is known.

"My menu is basically the same as when I started," Tidu says, "but we have many, many specials all the time according to the season and availability of the ingredients I need. I'm always adding new specials.

"You know what people do? They come and ask, 'Do you make this dish or that dish?' and we say, 'No problem, no problem'--and then we go in the kitchen and make it for them.

"And for a while everybody goes crazy for one dish, and then everybody goes crazy for another dish. What I like to do is to make dishes that people like so much that we make them classics on our menu."

As a case in point, Tidu recently began offering a seafood stew, denser and richer than a cioppino, which he calls frutti di mari affogati--literally, drowning seafood. Like a cioppino, the $18.50 dish is a concoction of mussels, clams, scallops, calamari and monkfish plus carrots, celery, tomatoes and spices, put together in such a way as to distinguish it from most any cioppino you're likely to find.

Where did he get the recipe?

"From my mother, of course," Tidu says, laughing. "I'm Italian--100%--from the beautiful island of Sardinia. My mother made this dish at home."

Also on the list of specials: a chicken breast topped with artichoke hearts, pine nuts and chopped tomato, for $13.50, and gambaretti alla Mediterraneo--shrimp sauteed with garlic and basil served on crisp fried angel hair pasta, for $18.

Tidu and Amati, who hails from the Adriatic coast east of Rome, opened La Finestra six years ago. The restaurant is closed on Mondays. It is at 19647 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, (818) 342-2824.

* Juan Hovey writes about the restaurant scene in the San Fernando Valley and outlying points. He may be reached at (805) 492-7909 or fax (805) 492-5139 or via e-mail at JHovey@compuserve.com.

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