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Big Sell on Sunset

At a new restaurant, the price is right. And five hours later, your table is ready.


The longest line on the Sunset Strip on Friday night wasn't at Skybar, Rande Gerber's hangout for the beautiful people, and it wasn't at the Roxy, where Johnny Was and Starrgun were rocking the black T-shirt crowd. It was at Rome Italian Cucina, a new restaurant on the first floor of the landmark 9000 Sunset building.

At the 6 p.m. opening time, the line to get in stretched a block and a half and took two bouncers to manage. Why were all those would-be diners there? It wasn't to gape at the restaurant's coved ceilings, painted--the owners brag--like the Sistine Chapel. It wasn't the reputation of chef Shad Davis--the restaurant claims he's "world-renowned," but nobody seems to have ever heard of him. And it certainly wasn't because of his cucina--most of those in line would get only scraps.

The line, estimated at a steady 500-strong that night, was a testament to the age-old allure of canny marketing and free food.

In one of the most flamboyant restaurant openings in memory, restaurateurs Larry Pollack and Tom Dillon decided to give away free dinners for an entire week to whoever showed up. Not just their friends. Not just a few selected celebrities. Everyone.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 17 inches; 617 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant owner--Rande Gerber is no longer associated with Skybar on the Sunset Strip, as was reported incorrectly in a story in the Food section Wednesday.

To ensure the widest possible audience, they printed their invitation in splashy two-page ads in the Thursday and Sunday editions of the Los Angeles Times: a free dinner for up to four people, including appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts, served from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. to anyone bearing a coupon.

The promotion ends tonight. And by the time the last vitello Milanese is cleared, Pollack estimates that more than 3,000 diners will have consumed $100,000 worth of classic Italian fare.

In an era when most restaurants choose to open quietly, building an audience slowly over time, this was a big bang. "We wanted to create a shock, do something original," says Pollack. "We wanted to get the name out there in a quick way and in a big way."

That they did. The free food and the enormous ads have had the city buzzing all week. The restaurant has been discussed on radio stations across Southern California and featured on the television news. It has popped up on foodie Web sites whose attention is usually fixed on the top culinary ranks, say, Nancy Silverton or Suzanne Goin. "We didn't do any other advertising," Pollack says, "but they're all talking about it."

Joan Luther, Los Angeles' grande dame of restaurant publicity, says that in a career dating back to the glory days of Scandia and the Brown Derby, she can't remember anything like it.

"But it obviously worked," she says. "Even I, when I saw that ad, thought, 'I've got to go by and see it for myself.' I just cannot believe it."

It's also the first time Pollack and Dillon have tried anything like this. They own two other scene restaurants on the Strip--Miyagi's, a three-story sushi bar at the other end of Sunset, and Saddle Ranch Chop House, a steak place that features a mechanical bucking bull--and both of those opened quietly.

"With the other restaurants we've done a slower build," Pollack says. "We usually invite a lot of friends of employees and friends of mine and so on. It usually takes anywhere from three to four months to get the word out there. We thought we'd expedite the building process. We never anticipated the amount of response."

Rome is not the only restaurant to be built in this way, but it is by far the most extreme example. Porterhouse Bistro, a steak place in Beverly Hills that opened a year ago, recently sent out more than 75,000 letters by first-class mail, offering free food. At first, the coupons were good for the entire meal, now they're down to a steak.

For most of her clients, Luther advises avoiding any kind of opening party.

The problem with the traditional grand opening, she says, is putting together the guest list: "Twenty-five years ago, you could put together a pretty good list of the people in Los Angeles who would go to a good restaurant, so you could invite most of them and get the word of mouth started.

"Today, I couldn't even guess who they would be. The city has grown so much."

In addition to who is invited, she also worries about who is not. "Why offend anyone?" Luther asks. "People in Los Angeles are very uptight about that. They can really get on their high horse."

Friday night on the Strip, nobody was on a horse of any kind.

The first customers lined up at about 4 p.m., two hours before the 130-seat restaurant opened. They, it turned out, would be the lucky ones.

By 6, the line stretched down the block, a Hollywood mix of hipsters and oldsters, of thrifty Beverly Hills matrons and starving USC students, and the merely curious.

Elizabeth Calles and her friend Edith Garcia, a couple of 30-somethings who work in the area, thought they'd stop in. "I just wanted to see what this was all about," Calles said. "I thought it sounded too good to be true. I called to ask them what the catch was and they said, 'No catch.' You have to buy your own drinks, but, hey, I figured I could handle that."

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