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EATS | FIRST IMPRESSIONS

At Fonz's, It's Game, Set and Menu

Manhattan Beach eatery offers volleyball atmosphere and whimsical food.

September 11, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

In this hot weather, eating at the beach sounds like a plan. Manhattan Beach, say. If the traffic gods are beneficent, you just might arrive in time to stroll along the strand and catch a volleyball game on the sand.

The new place to eat there is Fonz's Restaurant on Manhattan Avenue. It's a small, cheerful place owned by Mike Dodd, a 1996 Olympic silver medalist in beach volleyball, who named it for his late dad. To one side is a gleaming wood bar with a golden German brew on tap. The dining room's exposed brick and hand-rubbed green walls are decorated with framed, over-sized photos of local beach life and action shots of volleyball stars. Brown paper covers the tabletops, and the wooden chairs are a charming hodgepodge of designs.

It turns out our genial waitress, a tall, rangy blond, is a volleyball player, too, picking up some extra money at the end of the season. In fact, almost everybody in here looks like some kind of athlete. At a table of guys with buzz cuts, I hear someone explaining what he'll be wearing at some event: a really small Speedo.

The chef is Russell Jackson, who had his own place on La Cienega Boulevard a few years ago, then cooked for Wolfgang Puck, and briefly at the Regent Beverly Wilshire before migrating south to the laid-back beach community. The contrast between the starchy Beverly Hills hotel and this place couldn't be more dramatic: Here the chef gets to wear big loose Hawaiian print shorts and take breaks on the sidewalk out front, cooled down by that salt-laden sea breeze.

"I believe in natural, organic, fun, sexy food," is the quote from Jackson at the top of the menu. Dishes like lobster lavender bisque and cowboy-style hanger steak or hand-fluffed wasabi potatoes sound wild and whimsical. He's also got some plainer comfort food like balsamic roasted chicken, yesterday's soup (to borrow a phrase from Joachim Splichal) and a nice spinach and arugula salad strewn with bacon in a sherry vinaigrette. The kitchen still seems to be finding its way: Many of the dishes taste like experiments.

BE THERE

Fonz's Restaurant, 1017 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach; (310) 376-1536. Open daily for dinner. Street parking. Appetizers $5 to $9; main courses $14 to $23.

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