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Critic's Notebook

The Perfect Dinner Party for Two: Me and My Book

July 05, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When I was growing up in Fullerton, on Saturdays or in the summertime, my mother used to let me shrug off my little sister and walk downtown by myself. First stop was the library, where I could browse to my heart's content--no one urging me to hurry up. I could spend as long as I pleased. I'd agonize over which books to check out, though. Since I had to walk home, too, I could only get as many as I could carry.

New books in hand, I strolled over to the luncheonette, sat at a table by myself and ordered a burger and Coke. While I waited, I would crack open one of my books to the first page and begin to read, reveling in being alone. I kept reading when my lunch came, kept reading as the ice melted in my Coke. And if no one else needed the table, I read on, feeling my way into Chandler's gritty Los Angeles or Dickens' London.

I still enjoy eating by myself--usually with a book propped open. Sometimes, if I've worked late and my husband is out of town--and especially if it's very hot--I'll stop at Maple Drive in Beverly Hills for a cold beer and a bowl of "kick-ass chili" in the bar. The air-conditioning is delicious, more so because I know I'm going home to a hot house. The light isn't the best for reading, but I can still make out the words.

The counter at Musso & Frank in Hollywood where patrons sit elbow-to-elbow is so companionable, it's hard to feel lonely. The old-time waiters here are solicitous and kindly, laying out a fresh napkin as a placemat, listening carefully to your order. The martini comes nicely chilled, and the avocado cocktail with handmade Thousand Island dressing is soothing. As a main course, I like to get the double-cut lamb chops or the grilled calves' liver. Or on Sunday mornings, read the paper over a plate of floppy flannel cakes. A perch on one of the high bar stools at Campanile is a perfect place for a light supper--a couple of appetizers, or a pasta dish, say, which still allows plenty of room for one of Nancy Silverton's heady desserts. This time of year, there should be rustic fruit tarts and wonderful ice creams.

For a late lunch downtown, I sometimes like to go to Mandarin Deli in Little Tokyo. After 2, I can slide into an empty booth, take out a book and read while wrestling pot stickers with my chopsticks or slurping a boiling hot bowl of soup with handmade noodles and swatches of greens.

With its martini lounge, Pinot Hollywood does nicely, too, for an impromptu supper with book. A glass of Champagne, a dozen or two oysters--what could be more indulgent? And the fries, sprinkled with garlic and parsley, are terrific, too.

A few weeks ago I saw one woman, supremely comfortable in her own skin, reading contentedly at the bar at Mr. Chow, oblivious to the inane flirtations that weathered gentlemen were making to the much younger women who thronged the bar. Who, I wondered, was having the better time? I think I knew.

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