There's a fashionable eatery in the Louvre named Cafe Marly. We have our own Cafe Marly over here, but I wouldn't call it fashionable; "homey" would be the word. You heard me, this is a friendly, homey French restaurant in Beverly Hills, a place whose proprietors have the confidence and the sense of humor to embrace a little kitsch in the service of good food and comfortable surroundings. It serves as something of a hangout for nostalgic French folks -- and those who'd like to be, I guess, to judge from the English-speaking people who are clearly regulars.
In a nod to the Louvre connection, perhaps, a print of the Mona Lisa smiles down from a position above the baguette basket and behind the counter. Her wry expression seems just right for the warm, high-ceilinged room whose ochre walls are hung with multiple prints of the Eiffel Tower on one side and landscapes by local artists on the other. The country-French decor of rustic wooden tables and cane-seated chairs with Provencal-print cushions is saved from being overly cute by the amusing handmade collage of French movie scenes from the '30s through the '50s that embellishes the wooden back of a long banquette.
The menu is a reminder of the sort of everyday French food that captivated Southland diners years back: crepes, salade nicoise, quiche Lorraine, croque-monsieur. The service is also a throwback to another era and reminds visitors why people used to describe French restaurants as "charming." The waiters are eager to please and even give you little nibbles as soon as you sit down, typically cubes of quiche on toothpicks. (If you come between 4 and 6 p.m. for happy hour, you'll get such snacks when you order a glass of beer or wine or a wine cocktail.)
The cafe is open from breakfast to dinner most nights, and it even delivers within the area.
Maybe the most old-time thing about Cafe Marly is the modest prices. Forget about comparing them with the staggering tabs you pay at the big-name French restaurants around town -- how many places of any description in 90210 have a price range that tops out with a $17.95 filet mignon?
It's in a quirky room -- wide but shallow -- that feels as if it's being pushed up against the back wall, squeezing some of the diners onto the sidewalk in the process. It may not be a quaint Paris sidewalk -- you're basically looking out at a parking structure -- but the street formerly known as Little Santa Monica is relatively quiet and low on auto exhaust emissions.
Since the Italian food mania of the '90s, any Beverly Hills restaurant -- Italian or not -- has been pretty much required to have panini at lunch and pastas at dinner, and Marly's obliges, though its sandwich list also includes French selections such as pan bagnat (tuna, anchovies, radishes, etc.) and jambon beurre (in this case, butter, country ham and Gruyere). (At least there's no bruschetta; the closest to that would be the tartine -- baguette toasts smeared with goat cheese.) There's no culinary chauvinism here, but subtract the sandwiches and pastas, and the menu is mostly old-fashioned French dishes such as onion soup and moules frites.
The onion soup has a notably beefy broth, and those moules are great. You get a big bowl of steamed black mussels with a thin, garlicky cream sauce in the bottom and a big pile of skinny French frites on the side, served in their own bowl.
The house specialty is poulet Marly. In many a restaurant that would be a roast chicken, but here it's four or five thick slices of chicken breast marinated with lemon juice, olive oil and herbs (definitely including tarragon), grilled and arranged in a sort of random, Frank Gehry-ish woodpile. The chicken is dense and flavorful, and comes with an irresistible cream sauce dosed with whole-seed mustard. You can also get sweet little grilled lamb chops (cotelettes d'agneau grillees) in the same wonderful mustard sauce.
The daily specials are mostly in this retro vein, such as an excellent sole with white wine and caper sauce. But Cafe Marly also puts a novel touch on some dishes, for instance sprinkling a little dill around the plate that your croque-monsieur comes on. The quiche lorraine substitutes ham for the traditional bacon and adds some mozzarella, meanwhile reducing the custard content to about a quarter inch. It's almost a cross between quiche and pizza.
It's been a long time since people around here considered stuffed crepes exotic and French. Cafe Marly does a good job on them, anyway. Crepes la reine has a satisfying filling of dense-textured, flavorful chicken breast, melting Swiss cheese, mushrooms and bechamel sauce.
Baguettes and croissants are from Normandie Bakery. You can get espresso drinks and even flavored coffees, but ask for "coffee" and they'll give you good drip French roast (which as it turns out is an Italian coffee) in a mug. That's a mug -- not a little espresso cup but a really honking big mug.
A rotating roster of musicians -- a French pop band, a discreet guitarist, a chanteuse -- performs Wednesdays through Saturdays.
And now a dessert? A sweet crepe, naturellement? Crepes suzette, perhaps?
Location: 9669-2 Santa Monica Blvd. South, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-7274; fax (310) 271-7258.
Price: Breakfast, $3.50-$9; lunch soups, $5 to $5.50; salads, $5 to $10.50; sandwiches and main dishes, $7.50 to $9.50; desserts, $4.50 to $7; dinner soups, $7 to $7.50; salads, $5.50 to $11.50; main dishes, $8 to $17.95; desserts, $4.50 to $8. Corkage, $15.
Best dishes: French onion soup, quiche Lorraine, poulet Marly, cotelettes d'agneau grillees, moules frites
Details: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday and Tuesday; 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Wine and beer. Parking lots on Roxbury and Bedford drives. Free parking in back after 6 p.m. Live music Wednesday through Saturday, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Visa, MasterCard, and American Express.