Yes, there have been other high-glamour, high-priced restaurants -- Chasen's, Scandia, Romanoff's -- places favored by presidents and film stars. But the granddaddy of them all was a restaurant founded during the Depression by an Italian immigrant who believed that Los Angeles had an appetite for fine food in elegant surroundings.
Only a dreamer would have opened a restaurant that charged $1.25 for a dinner at a time when Angelenos could eat a full and hearty meal for 5 or 10 cents.
The dreamer's name was Alexander Perino, and his namesake restaurant was Los Angeles' first and foremost icon of culinary excellence, setting the standard for more than 50 years.
Perino referred to his establishment -- originally in the 3900 block of Wilshire Boulevard -- as The Place, and for well-heeled Angelenos, it was. Some diners wore tuxedoes and carried engraved cigarette cases. Women made entrances wearing evening gowns, diamonds and furs. Waiters knew what customers wanted before they knew themselves. Unlike lesser establishments, Perino's waiters were virtually invisible and never hovered for a tip.
Haute cuisine and expensive wines made Perino's the first Los Angeles restaurant praised by New York critics. It survived wartime food rationing and chic competitors following its lead.
Chasen's would have its famous chili, Scandia its gravlax, the Brown Derby its Cobb salad and grapefruit cake. Perino's drew diners with its steak Diane, chicken quenelles and pumpernickel cheese toast served by a waiter wearing white gloves.
Movie fans loitered outside Perino's, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Hollywood star after lunch or a late-night tipple. Charlie Chaplin always had time for panhandlers, handing out $5 and $10 bills. Frank Sinatra would play a tune on the Steinway in the bar, and Cole Porter wrote a song on a menu.
After the pigtailed child actress Margaret O'Brien began celebrating her birthdays there, the restaurant named a drink after her -- it was similar to a Shirley Temple. Opera bass Ezio Pinza declared Perino's gnocchi to be better than any he ate in Italy.
Mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel had a private booth. Regular and occasional guests included Eleanor Roosevelt, President Nixon, Sid Grauman, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Martin, Howard Hughes, novelist James M. Cain and Adm. Chester Nimitz.
Diners had such deep pockets that Dorothy "Buff" Chandler would seek donations from them, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1950s to help build the Music Center.
Perino's influence on Los Angeles began in 1932, seven years after he came to town. As a restaurateur, his motto was simple: "Food, service, cleanliness and no cheating." So was his credo: "Only the best."
He considered each dish a work of art. "A salad," he once said, "should be like a beautiful woman in a plain dress" -- nothing to distract from the dish itself.
A restaurant writer once remarked that Perino looked like an Italian count, with his white hair and courtly manners. "Like an Italian prince," Perino corrected him.
But the suave, impeccably dressed Perino, who greeted his regular customers with flawless English and a stately bow, began life under modest circumstances. He was born in 1895, the youngest of a dozen children in Italy's Piedmonte region. His father was a winemaker -- and a socialist.
In fact, "a good socialist," Perino said in a 1969 Los Angeles Times interview. "He saw what was wrong and tried to help. He loaned villagers money. If he didn't have it, he sold a cow or a barrel of wine and got it."
Young Perino dropped out of school after the third grade to become a blacksmith. But his parents instead apprenticed him to a pastry chef in San Remo on the Italian Riviera, where he developed a passion for music. When he learned that one diner was performing in "La Boheme," he traded her a plate of chocolate eclairs for a ticket. When Perino heard a chef singing, he bribed him with a pack of cigarettes to teach him arias.
Perino was in his early teens when his father died. Two years later, so did his mother. Orphaned at 15, Perino headed for New York, finding refuge with a family his father had helped.
He worked as a pot-scrubber and busboy, saving every penny to attend the opera. "Whenever Caruso sang, I quit my job" -- and promptly found another, he said in the 1969 interview.
A brief romance with a girl named Martha ended when he took her to hear Caruso: She fell asleep.
He worked his way across the continent, signing on at a variety of hotels. He served ice cream to Gen. John Pershing; beef with onion juice and butter to President Harding; guinea hen and sweet potatoes to President Taft.
Guests "tipped in gold" at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, he said, but he headed for Los Angeles to find his real fortune.