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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? A Mere 30,000

L.A.'s restaurants are gearing up for the feeding frenzy when hordes of Democrats descend on the city. But many eateries are going out of their way to stay available to regulars.


As the Democrats book their parties at restaurants from downtown to the ocean, and the kitchen at Spago starts peeling potatoes for 1,000--all by hand--the question is: Will there be any potatoes for the rest of us?

More important, will there be any decent tables left for Angelenos?

Not at Spago in Beverly Hills, the archetypal L.A. restaurant owned by Wolfgang Puck. It's been bought out for convention parties four nights in a row. The feeding frenzy kicks off with a buffet Sunday night for 1,000--estimated by sources to cost $100,000. Without an invitation to the dinner honoring House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, you can't even get close.

But don't panic. No one need starve just because another 30,000 people are stopping by for dinner.

With the exception of really famous or really big restaurants--square footage counts at convention feeds--most places still have tables open for dining.

Some, in fact, have gone out of their way to stay available to their regular customers. From the tony Valentino in Santa Monica to Engine Company No. 28 downtown, many restaurateurs have resisted the temptation to sell out to high-end conventioneers.

"The Engine has been here for 12 years," said the restaurant's managing general partner, Linda Griego, a former Los Angeles mayoral candidate. "It's a local hangout. We're taking smaller parties--14, 18 people."

Campanile, the chic La Brea Avenue restaurant in the historic courtyard building once owned by Charlie Chaplin, will host a few small parties in its cozy private rooms but remains open for reservations as well.

Mike Green, general manager of Pacific Dining Car, the downtown steakhouse, echoed Griego. "I have customers who have been coming since the '40s and '50s. When you have loyalty like that, one of the things you don't do is tell them you can't come in."

For other restaurants, however, the convention is not merely lucrative, it's a chance to show off, prove Los Angeles can compete with the other food capitals of the world.

"We're absolutely putting our best foot forward," said Harvey Friend, general manager of the Water Grill. The downtown restaurant will be the site of a buffet for Sen. Tom Daschle, at a price one restaurant industry source estimates at $70,000.

The Water Grill will serve 300 people dinner Wednesday, featuring an oyster bar, lobster pasta, rack of lamb and Alaskan day-trip halibut--which means the fish were swimming 24 hours before being served.

Spago's executive chef, Lee Hefter, has put in two $5,000 orders for vegetables from Chino Farms, the Rancho Santa Fe supplier of couture vegetables.

He promises Democrats will feast on "beautiful organic free-range chickens" and perfectly reduced sauces.

Valentino, which seats about 200, got 15 or 20 requests for buyouts, all declined by owner Piero Selvaggio to keep some tables open.

However, no restaurateur can resist all convention business.

Selvaggio's most prestigious space is his $1-million wine cellar, where patrons are allowed to dine only a few times a year. This week, it's occupied two nights--at the standard rate of $200 a head. On Thursday night, he has a very special reservation for 14.

"We cannot say for whom," said Selvaggio. "We have Secret Service and they have already told us they will do the usual procedure . . . the dogs, the telephone tapping."

Few trendy L.A. restaurants can host hundreds of people.

As many as 1,100 will dine at Hollywood's hot Sunset Room, which offers various grades of valet parking.

The restaurant Cicada, housed in a historic downtown building, resembles the dining room on the Titanic. The 550-seat restaurant is bought out every night at prices ranging from $25,000 to $35,000.

Their schedule: Monday, the National Hispanic Caucus; Tuesday, the New Jersey delegation; Wednesday, vice presidential running mate Joseph I. Lieberman; Thursday, an NBC buffet.

"The business, the boost--I feel like I'm part of it," said co-owner Adelmo Zarif of Cicada. His only fear is being too much a part of it, protests and all. As a precaution, workers erected plywood to protect the Lalique crystal adorning the restaurant's front courtyard.

Meanwhile, Ocean Avenue Seafood in Santa Monica will be the site of a Monday lunch buffet for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. General manager Robert McCrary is charging a mere $31 a head.

"I'm not a strong believer in capitalizing on the greed factor," said McCrary. "Why try to railroad somebody, 'Oh, let's really hike everything up.' "

The convention isn't making money for everybody.

The owner of Alto Palato, an Italian restaurant in West Hollywood that can seat 250, has talked up his place on Gore's Web site. But he's yet to book a large party. He chalks it up to location.

"If you're in Santa Monica, why do you want to go to West Hollywood?" said Danilo Terribili. "And if you're downtown, there are already fantastic restaurants."

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