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Mr. Sinatra has left the room

Can a new chef and a new menu save one of the last Old Hollywood spots in L.A.?

December 06, 2006|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

CHICKEN Beckerman, rest in peace.

The dish that for years was the No. 1 seller at Matteo's, an old-school Italian restaurant with a Hollywood following, will probably soon be forgotten. The restaurant itself, which used to be one of the hottest spots in town -- a hangout for Frank Sinatra (who grew up across the street from Matteo's founder Matty Jordan), Sammy Davis Jr., Lucille Ball and just about everyone who was anyone, has largely been forgotten too. But its new owner wants to change that.

With its dark red walls, low lighting, red imitation leather booths, chandeliers with leopard-print lampshades, the toy train that makes the rounds near the ceiling in the front room (where Chianti bottles are strung up across the entry), it's hard to imagine that this was once a hot spot. But the illustration for a 1967 Times article about "the age of the Beautiful Person" ("Where the Elite Meet to Eat") tells it all. In it, beau peeps such as George Plimpton, Nancy Wilson and Angie Dickinson named their favorite dining spots. "Scandia," said Melvin Belli. "The Bistro," said Rosalind Russell. "Matteo's," said Pierre Salinger. It stayed hot for at least two decades.

Claire Heron, the principal in a real estate management company, bought the Westwood Boulevard restaurant (and the land it occupies) from Jordan's widow late last year. She never intended to run a restaurant -- she planned to lease Matteo's to another operator or sell the business. But every restaurateur she approached wanted to close it and start afresh with a new concept. Heron (who owns the place with her three children) couldn't stand the idea. "I said there's hardly a single solitary Hollywood restaurant left, and I'm going to save it."

That meant getting a new chef. The food at Matteo's, Heron says, was terrible. She hired Don Dickman, the chef behind Rocca, the well-regarded Italian spot in Santa Monica that closed in 2005.

But is it possible to turn around a place with so much history without losing its character?

New and improved

ON a Tuesday night last month, loyal regulars were handed, for the first time, Dickman's radically different new menu. To many, it wasn't a good surprise. Instead of scampi Al Davis and mozzarella marinara, they found pan-roasted tiny Maine mussels and chicken liver crostini. Instead of J.F.K. with classic Alfredo, they found bucatini carbonara with guanciale (cured pork jowl) and pecorino Romano. Goodbye, sausage and peppers Stallone; hello, wild boar sausages with Tuscan beans, tomato, sage and green apple mostarda.

And though there was a "Matteo's Classics" page at the end of the menu, with Dickman's new, improved versions of dishes like veal Parmigiana with marinara sauce and baked mozzarella (formerly veal Parmigiana Don Rickles), baked clams oreganata and Matteo's chopped salad, there was no chicken Beckerman.

Dickman's goal was to attract young diners who'd lap up sweetbread and squash blossom fritto misto and brasato al Chianti, while losing as few of the old crowd as possible.

"We were sinking miserably financially," Heron said. "Even when we had overflow crowds, I was spending more money than we were taking in."

"The customers had figured out how to manhandle our staff to get a lot of free stuff," explains Dickman. "They'd substitute pasta for a side order of vegetables. Or they'd split stuff." The lasagna, for instance, "Matty's Original 1963 Recipe." "It's the Goodyear blimp of lasagna," Dickman said. "One order weighs about 20 pounds. It's Long Island Jewish lasagna. We'd use the cheapest noodles and ricotta."

Though the Herons have cleaned up the place, replacing the old leopard-print carpet with a fresh leopard-print carpet, changing some of the paintings (they're leaving the Red Skelton clown painting, of course), they're not otherwise going to touch the decor. Frank Sinatra's portrait still hangs over Sinatra's booth, table 8. If they removed it, the regulars wouldn't stand for it -- and it wouldn't feel like Matteo's.

As it is, Dickman and consulting general manager Colin Trauberman have had enough on their minds worrying about how the old regulars will react when they see their favorite dishes missing. Early in the evening the new menu debuted, Dickman gathered the waiters in the kitchen for a pre-service pep talk.

"Frank Sinatra is gone," he told them. "Matty is gone. I'm here. And you're here. People have been coming here so long a lot of people don't even look at the menu; they already know what they want. Now it's a new menu. They have to look at it."

No one expected the old regulars to take the demise of dishes like chicken Beckerman sitting down. "The next couple of days are gonna be difficult," Dickman told the wait staff. "If you have a problem with a table, don't try to solve it yourself. Get Colin. You're not the bad guy. Colin's the bad guy." The plan was to try to calm angry diners by buying them a glass of wine or a dessert.

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