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At Perino's, L.A. History Goes on Auction Block

Famed eatery, closed since 1986 except for private parties and filming, is being torn down.

June 05, 2004|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Tyrone Power's favorite pink fabric-covered booth. Frank Sinatra's martini-stained Steinway. The platters that served up steak Diane to Cary Grant and pumpernickel cheese toast to Charlie Chaplin.

It is all up for grabs today when furnishings from Perino's Restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard are auctioned off.

Perino's -- the last of the legendary eateries from Hollywood's Golden Age -- is about to become history, going the way of Chasen's, Sardi's and the Brown Derby.

The restaurant, at 4101 Wilshire Blvd., has been closed since 1986. But its peach and pink-accented interior, whose warm glow always seemed to give diners a radiant look, has remained intact for movie shoots and high-end private parties.

On Friday, a steady stream of wistful former Perino's customers walked through its landmark porte-cochere entryway for one last look.

"Mr. Perino gave gentility and grace rarely seen in today's commercial restaurants," said Lillian Nall, who dined there frequently in the late 1950s and '60s. She was sizing up the wall sconces and the pink booths for today's sale.

"I may buy one of the banquettes. I spent many enjoyable afternoons and evenings in them," Nall said with a sigh.

Alexander Perino created the restaurant's glamorous style, setting a standard that lasted more than 50 years.

The Italian-born restaurateur came to Los Angeles in 1925 as a waiter at downtown Los Angeles' newly opened Biltmore Hotel, but was fired for dropping a tray of tea and crumpets. He opened his restaurant in 1932 at a storefront in the Mid-Wilshire district. In 1950, he moved it two blocks west to a onetime Thriftimart grocery store that was elegantly remodeled by famed architect Paul Williams.

Perino was a stickler for quality.

The silver-plated serving dishes had "Perino's" stamped on the bottom. Each pink linen-covered table was decorated with a single pink rose. The pastry cart was solid silver.

His salads were made from greens grown for him on the Palos Verdes Peninsula by a Japanese American farmer. Tomatoes were never put on ice because Perino believed they would lose their flavor. Ice for the bar was taken directly there so it would not accidentally pick up food tastes from the kitchen.

Perino's elegant setting and quality food soon drew a following of Hollywood celebrities and Los Angeles' elite -- not to mention a few from the fringes.

Bette Davis had a booth reserved for her, Cole Porter wrote a song on the back of a menu and child star Margaret O'Brien had a ginger ale and grenadine drink named after her.

Mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was a regular in the 1940s. In the early 1950s, Midwest gangster Anthony "Big Tuna" Accardo and Los Angeles underworld figure Jack Dragna were among those who briefly staged a mob summit meeting at Perino's before police broke it up.

Perino's was a favorite of everyday Angelenos, too -- at least on special occasions like anniversaries when they were willing to splurge on a big night out.

"I came as a child on every birthday. It was a big treat," said Susan Davidson, a Sherman Oaks nurse who attended Friday's auction open house and plans to bid today on a chair as a souvenir.

"It was so much fun dressing up and coming here where everything was so elegant and refined. The green pea soup was presented so elegantly. I'd never eat peas the rest of the year. But on my birthday I would order the soup."

Perino sold his restaurant in 1969, and by the early 1980s changing tastes had taken their toll on the new owners. An attempt to revive the restaurant in 1986 failed. Times restaurant reviewer Ruth Reichl -- who was there the night that a robber held up a patron in the parking lot -- raved about the police response but gave the food a poor rating.

Developer Tom Carey, who along with a partner acquired the building two years ago for $4 million, plans to save Perino's bar -- where Sinatra sometimes played the piano -- along with the foyer and distinctive entryway awning. Those features will be incorporated into the 47-unit luxury apartment complex planned for the site. Construction of the $20-million project will follow demolition of the restaurant structure, probably in August.

Part of the proceeds from today's auction will go to the Windsor Square-Hancock Park Historical Society and to the Hollywood Entertainment Museum -- which will also receive some artifacts. The building's circular stairway, a Williams trademark, is being given to the architect's granddaughter Karen Hudson, Carey said.

The 7 p.m. auction will be preceded, appropriately enough, by a 5 p.m. cocktail reception. The restaurant will be open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for inspection.

The preservation efforts were praised by Los Angeles Conservancy member Larry Underhill, who was chronicling Perino's final days Friday with a camera.

"It's a reuse that pays homage to Paul Williams," Underhill said, snapping a photo of the huge beaded crystal chandelier glowing in the center of the oval dining room. "I feel they are real sensitive developers."

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