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Just Phone It In

High-end restaurants sell 'cuisine to go.'

October 11, 2000|JESSICA STRAND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When you just have to have the lasagne verdi from Vincenti, or the sea bass from Jozu, or a fruit crisp from Campanile, nothing else will do.

So what a relief to know those special dishes are only a phone call away. You don't even have to get dressed up. Many of Southern California's finest restaurants prepare food to go, and some even deliver.

Vida's Fred Eric once made a whole Thanksgiving dinner for a woman who wanted to impress her in-laws. The customer emphasized that the meal had to look as if she had made it. So Eric cooked everything in her pans and taped heating instructions on each dish.

And then there's the man whose kids stay with him on weekends, so every Friday he calls Valentino and orders food for one of the two evenings. The restaurant packs it up with instructions and puts it in a waiting car that delivers it directly to his door. He doesn't even have to tell them his credit card number anymore.

One time a customer even ordered Vincenti's full Valentine tasting menu to go. "It was very sweet," says Maureen Vincenti. "He wanted instructions on how to reheat everything. He rushed out of here with 10 bags in his arms excited to get home and surprise his wife."

And it's not just humans who get special treatment. At the Farm of Beverly Hills, a woman gets the same lunch every day for herself and her dog. A salad (of her own creation) and two fresh chocolate chip cookies for herself and a large homemade-style dog biscuit to go.

Eric says he once had a client who was putting his dog to sleep the next day, so he ordered a porterhouse steak for the pooch: "He kept saying, 'Make it really special.' "

Campanile, Jozu, Vincenti, Valentino, Drago, Joe's, Patina and Vida all have customers who order out lunch or dinner several times a week.

Of course, such treatment isn't cheap. Figure as much as $75 per person for the food alone. But what you get for that is the real deal--food straight from the restaurant kitchen, albeit reheated and served yourself.

Although most places will try to steer you toward menu items that are easily transportable, if you have a strong enough yen, they'll sell you whatever you want.

Joe Miller of Joe's suggests his sliced beef with mashed potatoes and grilled crisp artichokes covered in a red pepper glaze, but he even gets requests for his chocolate souffle--the ultimate in non-transportable food. He tries to talk them out of it, but, he says, "sometimes people just have to have one. They'll even take it with ice cream on top, knowing that it'll probably be melted by the time they get home."

Andy Nakano of Jozu says that favorites such as lobster tomato salad travel well. With larger orders, he often undercooks the meat and fish and gives reheating instructions to make sure that the meal loses none of its flavor.

Restaurants go to great lengths to satisfy their customers' needs. The requests can be terribly elaborate, occasionally odd and sometimes touching.

Every other week, Nakano visits a blind client who wants the full fine-dining experience brought to him at home. He makes sure the customer gets exactly that--from the silverware and linens to the courses of the meal, exactly as he would at the restaurant.

One couple calls Nakano three times a week but never orders anything specific. Instead, they tell him what they're in the mood for, trusting his inspiration.

Nakano has to send everything, even utensils. Though this couple lives in a huge house with a state-of-the-art kitchen, apparently there's never a pot or pan in sight.

Businesses have even sprung up around the idea. One, called Why Cook?, picks up and delivers restaurant meals right to your door from 60 restaurants around Los Angeles' Westside.

Arina Cabrel, who started the company eight years ago, promises food delivered within 45 to 60 minutes of placing your order. She charges $5 to $7, depending on the size of the delivery. She says her clientele keeps growing. One of her regulars orders more than $1,000 worth of food every Thursday evening.

Similar services cover the San Fernando Valley and Orange County. In Orange County, Door to Door deals with 30 to 40 restaurants, ranging from the elegant to the casual, and charges $4.99 per delivery. Gourmet Shuttle also operates in Orange County, serving from more than 100 restaurants from Westminster to the Saddleback Valley. For a typical meal, it charges $5.95. Cuisine to You is the biggest delivery service in the San Fernando Valley, with more than 100 restaurants. It charges a flat rate of $5.

For an even more elaborate event, you can have some of the city's finest chefs actually come to your home to cook dinner.

Of course, this is done usually for a special occasion, because it's not cheap. A chef will charge up to $75 an hour (and that's just the chef, not the cost of the food or the helpers).

Still, one of Patina's regulars knows the staff so well she gives over a bedroom or two for them to dress and put their feet up when needed.

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