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Perino's: Food May Give Way to Lodging

August 15, 2003|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

Perino's, a long-gone but legendary Wilshire Boulevard restaurant that catered to the top tier of Los Angeles society for decades, may soon give way to a high-end apartment building.

Developers plan to knock down the 70-year-old building and erect a 48-unit luxury apartment complex, but one that attempts to preserve the style and legacy of the beloved eatery. The new building would be called Perino's Apartments.

In its glory days, Perino's set the standard for sophistication and high style. For nearly four decades, it was a place where socialites lingered over chicken quenelles and steak Diane as violins played softly in the background. Celebrities of all stripes dined at Perino's: Eleanor Roosevelt, Cole Porter, Bugsy Siegel.

Surrounding them since 1949 was the epitome of postwar decorating elegance, shades of pink and peach that architect Wade Killefer called "Rat Pack modern." Indeed, Frank Sinatra and other entertainers of that era fooled around on the Steinway grand piano in the bar, developer Tom Carey said.

Carey and his partner, Tef Kutay, paid $4 million for the building at Wilshire and Norton Avenue. They plan a four-story edifice that will complement a neighboring complex's Spanish Colonial Baroque style of the 1920s.

The developers will retain a few key elements of the Perino's exterior designed by noted Los Angeles architect Paul R. Williams, including the porte- cochere, sheet metal awning and signs that were familiar to generations of drivers on Wilshire.

Killefer, who is designing the project, also plans to use parts of the restaurant's interior features in the lobby and common areas. Among the elements: big high-back booths with red leather tuck-and-roll upholstery and brass buttons; smoked mirrors; and enormous chandeliers.

"It's early Vegas, but tasteful," Killefer said.

Carey said other elements of the restaurant would be auctioned off, including silverware and plates adorned with the word "Perino's"; the piano; furniture; and reproductions of 17th century paintings that decorated the walls.

"We're trying to find someone interested in the whole collection" of art, he said.

Carey & Kutay Development has submitted plans to the city for review. If approved, construction on the $15-million to $20-million project would begin in about 10 months. The two- and three-bedroom units would rent for more than $2 per square foot, or about $2,000 a month.

Keeping the Perino's legend alive is important but saving its concrete and block shell is not, Carey said. "The value of the building is negligible," he said.

The Los Angeles Conservancy, a group dedicated to historic preservation, has not taken a position on whether the Perino's building should be preserved, said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues.

"It may not be as architecturally significant as some of the other great landmarks of Wilshire Boulevard," he said. Discussions with neighbors in the nearby upscale neighborhoods of Windsor Square and Hancock Park have not revealed a groundswell of support for preserving the site as a restaurant, he said. Many are concerned about the noise and traffic that a new nightspot might bring.

Perino's legacy dates to 1932 when it was opened by Alexander Perino, a restaurateur of the old school who favored continental cuisine. It was the sort of restaurant whose bartender bragged that ordinary ice ruined his martinis. He used French vermouth, English pot still gin and ice that was delivered daily directly to the bar so that it did not go through the kitchen and pick up any fishy flavors.

In 1949, Perino's moved to the Wilshire location, a former market built in 1933. It took $200,000 to achieve the makeover envisioned by architect Williams and interior designers Steve and Sherry Stockwell.

The results were described by Times restaurant reviewer Ruth Reichl like this:

"The oval dining room was a Technicolored dream done in tones of rose. It looked like a powder puff, a boudoir, a place for Venus on the half shell. Crystal twinkled, chandeliers dripped from the ceiling, mirrors reflected everything."

Restaurant public relations specialist Joan Luther remembers Perino as a perfectionist who would throw out an entire crate of lettuce if one head had a brown leaf. His lavish touches included a jar of tiny macaroons near the door as a treat for what Luther called "a very WASPy, establishment crowd."

It was the kind of place where "you never felt like you wanted to laugh too loud," she said.

Perino sold the restaurant in 1969 to Frank Esgro, who ran it until 1983. Then, in an attempt to expand, Esgro opened a lavish bistro in a downtown high-rise. By the end of 1984, Esgro said he had lost more than $7.5 million and in early 1985 the restaurant filed for bankruptcy protection.

The Wilshire location closed a few months later, and the building's interior has since been used for restaurant scenes in movies and television shows.

Perino's experienced a short-lived comeback in 1986 under new owners but then closed for good.

"I think that world is gone," Luther said.

"If you asked me to invest in a restaurant there at that location, I would say 'no.' "

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