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Come here often? You bet: It's good to be the king

Restaurant regulars may be creatures of habit, but there's a lot more to it. Restaurants win too.

March 10, 2004|Susan LaTempa | Special to The Times

When Frank Catullo's restaurant Pastina opened in Westwood in 1992, a legend grew up around two of his customers, Mona Brandler and her husband, Henry. It was said they ate there every night.

Perfectly true, says Brandler. "I had fallen and broken my wrist and I couldn't cook. We ate at Pastina every night for six weeks."

Brandler continued to dine there with her late husband once or twice a week and is a regular customer there to this day. "I have a standing date with a girlfriend. Every Thursday night we go for dinner. All the waiters know me by my first name. It's the only restaurant in town I can eat alone and I feel like I'm eating with my family."

Brandler, 83, is an emeritus member of the vast urban tribe of restaurant regulars -- people who eat at the same restaurant twice a month, once a week, even every day. She's in the same league as devoted diners Guy and Susan Wolff, who have eaten almost daily at Brent's Delicatessen in Northridge for 17 years, "sometimes three times a day," according to Guy.

Regulars say they return to the same places again and again for three reasons -- food they like, highly personal service and convenience of location. And although they gravitate toward certain categories of restaurants -- breakfast spots, steakhouses, delicatessens and sushi bars among them -- regulars can be found in all sorts of places, paying all sorts of prices.

"People put themselves on automatic to try and reduce the stress of the day," says Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University. "Returning to the same place feels comfortable. There are relationships involved."

The relationship between restaurants and regulars is a symbiotic one. Restaurants provide their regulars with the comfort and consistency they crave as well as something more, a feeling that they're special, an emotional lift that keeps the recipient coming back for more. For their part, regulars are the people who keep long-lived restaurants not just in business, but jampacked.

In the South Bay, where Martha's 22nd Street Grill has been a fixture on the Strand in Hermosa Beach for 18 years, Manager Laima Zilinskas figures half the customers are regulars.

At Pastina, Catullo estimates that 70% of his customers are.

"For lunch," he says with a laugh, "I don't even have anyone at the door. People just come right in and they sit at their regular tables."

At Joe's in Venice, about 10% of the diners come at least twice a month.

"Regulars are critical," says Charles Frank, private equity investor and restaurant consultant. "Without question, restaurants over a long period of time make it or don't make it on the strength of their regulars."

That's why at Joe's, chef-owner Joe Miller says he and his front-of-the-house staffers review the reservation list weekly for repeaters. Miller always sends out a little treat for regulars, "What we call a 'chico,' " he says, "which is essentially an amuse." Catullo, who believes that "everybody's not a customer, but a friend," empowers his Pastina waiters to offer complimentary desserts, after-dinner drinks and other gestures of appreciation to "steadies." He has personally delivered dinner to a homebound flu-stricken regular and gives a thank-you Christmas party each year.

From the point of view of the restaurateur, regulars not only are good customers but also provide essential word-of-mouth marketing in an industry with what Peter Romeo, editorial director of Restaurant Business magazine, calls an "astronomical failure" rate. As a result, strategies to attract and hold regulars are behind everything from names (first names like "Mel's" or "Annie's" imply that it's a homey neighborhood spot you'll want to return to) to menus (daily specials keep frequent diners intrigued and entertained) to design.

'A residential feel'

"A few years ago you had these big, noisy dazzling places," says Romeo. "Now the trend in restaurant design is much more a residential feel. Softer surfaces, more comfort. It's an effort to stress comfort rather than what I call 'sport dining,' eating out for the bragging rights."

In Southern California, you'll find restaurant regulars everywhere on the dining spectrum. There are showbiz workers who eat daily at hangouts as divergent as the Grill in Beverly Hills, Sam and Woody's near Sony and John O'Groats down the street from Fox. There are multi-generation family groups that frequent Taylor's Prime Steaks in La Canada Flintridge and Fin's in Calabasas. There are vegetarians who eat only at Real Food Daily in L.A. or at Au Lac Vegetarian Restaurant in Fountain Valley.

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