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A Quirky Slice of L.A.

September 25, 2002|CINDY DORN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One night about a year ago, Katie Williams walked down the steps of a dark and dingy nightclub in Highland Park to hear a band. But she couldn't keep her eyes off the dusty old snack bar languishing in the corner, a grim curve of counter with an even grimmer-looking kitchen, all closed up tighter than a drum.

All that potential, wasting away.

She went home and told her twin sister, Lecie, about her latest restaurant fantasy. "Katie is always seeing restaurant possibilities, everywhere she goes," says Lecie. "But she was pretty persistent about this one."

The persistent sisters quickly opened the Gutter, a funky little restaurant in the corner of Mr. T's Bowl in Highland Park. They had a definite idea about the food they wanted to serve--the sorts of things they loved to eat back home.

"There's a long tradition of good bar food in Wisconsin, tavern food," Katie says. "People don't just go into a bar to drink, they enjoy eating too. Most bars have a really good sandwich that they're known for, or a hearty soup. And that's what we wanted to serve."

And they do, nearly one order at a time.

The sisters--the Gutter girls, as the regulars call them--have a devoted following, a motley group that includes a foodie or two, never mind that everything is served on paper with plastic utensils, and to be honest, they didn't spiff the place up all that much, at least not to the naked eye.

Six colorful lanterns now shed light over the restaurant's low counter, beckoning patrons to the eight stools and three mismatched booths. Behind the counter is a clean little kitchen with a grill, an oven with no temperature gauge, six gas burners and a deep fryer. There's a large refrigerator, a freezer and a sink. In this small space the sisters have choreographed a patient dance of baking pies, biscuits and bread pudding; grilling sandwiches and ladling soup, and, on the weekends, making pancakes and egg concoctions.

"One of us has to be what we call the Mastermind," said Katie, 31. "It's a weird, insular world back here, and the Mastermind keeps track of the timing of the orders and makes sure everyone gets their food at the same time and that it's hot. The other one preps, makes toast, assembles sandwiches and fills the dessert orders."

In the '70s and '80s, while the Williams sisters were growing up in Wisconsin and learning to cook from their mother and bake from their grandmother, Mr. T's Bowl was a popular drinking spot for some of the longtime residents. In the '90s, the twins were off to UC Berkeley. Eventually they ran a theater in San Francisco. Back in Highland Park, the bowling alley's wooden lanes were being replaced with a stage, a dance floor and a soundboard. All the while, the snack bar was opening, closing and reopening, attempting to serve American or Mexican fast food to a clientele with more charm than money, most of their money going to the bar.

Nowadays the food at the Gutter is anything but fast. There's no microwave oven, no blender, no prep cook. The Williams' favorite appliance is a food mill. "We like the flavor that comes out when we mill ingredients for soups or our homemade ketchup," Katie says. "It's a Zen-like experience, milling big batches of ketchup."

The sandwiches are twisted variations of old standards. The tuna melt is made with roasted pasilla chiles and pepper Jack cheese. The cold meatloaf sandwich on white bread is served with the standard mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato, but homemade ketchup adds a little kick. The fries are studded with garlic. Artichoke hearts add flavor and texture to the tangy potato salad. The soups are hearty. Lecie usually bakes a pie, and there's bread pudding served with rhubarb sauce or fried bananas.

At breakfast, the pancakes are fluffy (barely stir the batter, Katie advises). The hash browns are made from fresh grated potatoes and the orange juice is freshly squeezed. The popular Breakfast Bowl is hash browns topped with scrambled eggs, turkey chili and Cheddar cheese. And for vegetarians there's the Hippie Bowl, tofu scrambled in fresh ginger peanut sauce.

When the Gutter opened in August 2001, the first months were tough. There were loud punk bands most nights of the week, a surreal karaoke night on Thursdays. The sisters were getting lots of advice from the folks at the bar. There were some opinions about what should be served: hot dogs, popcorn, chips and candy bars. "Price everything the same price as a drink," was a popular suggestion.

But they stuck to their menu, cooking good home-style food and shopping daily for fresh ingredients. They managed to coexist with the bar scene and the bands. And the word has spread about the good food. The weekend gets busy and everybody waits. Most people are patient, but a few aren't.

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