Meet old school: Vladimir Bezak, Manny Felix, Sergio Guerra and Pablo Zelaya. Among them, they have provided more than 100 years of service to countless diners across Los Angeles, their days measured in ice-cold dry martinis and perfectly cooked medium-rare steaks. Wars (including those against calories and carbohydrates) have been waged, presidents (and chefs) have come and gone, and meanwhile, they've looked after their customers down to the last detail, special requests indulged, cups of coffee refilled.
"Good service is a craft," Guerra says. "This is my profession, it's my living."
They are, in Los Angeles, a rare breed -- career waiters, veteran career waiters. While at many restaurants it can be hard to get your server's attention when you don't have a spoon for your soup or you may have to suffer the yadda-yadda-yadda of introductions and upselling and instructions, these are consummate waiters who, always gracious, know exactly how to make you feel taken care of, without being oppressed. And though they all work at celebrity hangouts, if you're expecting any juicy stories, forget it -- when pushed, they all fall back on the famous discretion of a great waiter.
Manny Felix has a smile as big as an iceberg wedge, wire-rim glasses and a Felix the Cat pin on his lapel. He has been working at Musso & Frank Grill for 37 years, 32 of them behind the counter. "They put me here as punishment . . . for drinking and womanizing," he jokes.
There's a party in the "new room" for a school board member, and on his way in, L.A. Councilman Tom LaBonge pauses at the counter, shakes Manny's hand and announces, "This guy is one of the greatest in L.A." Other men in suits accompanied by women in short dresses stop by to say hello. A cousin of a regular who's visiting from Hawaii wants to take Felix's picture, so he spreads his arms out wide, yells, "Ha-waii!" and grins.
Felix, 71, is inclined to sing Mexican love ballads or perform magic tricks -- the contents of a packet of sugar disappear in his hand, or he shows how money "grows" into a giant quarter.
"I started sitting at the counter almost every Thursday starting back in 1989 when I was a delivery boy at Paramount Studios," says regular Jimmy "the Doc" Pappas. "I worked with a cantankerous old guy who took me there after work. He said, 'Kid, if you're gonna work in Hollywood, you need to go to the bar, knock two back, then sit at the counter with Manny and have him do some silly tricks for ya.' "
When asked what makes for good service, Felix says: "Let's start with the origin of the word 'tip.' There was a box in the restaurant that said 'TIPS,' which stood for 'to insure prompt service.' I make sure you get your steak medium-rare or your broccoli with butter, and I get it to you right away. And it's none of this phony-baloney, 'Hi, my name is [mumbles] and I'll be your server tonight.'
"And here's a very big word -- respect. I respect the staff, the kitchen, that's the secret of my relationship with the crew, and it's how I get customers what they want. If you want something creative and I go to the pantry or sous chef or butcher, they'll do it. It works very efficiently."
Felix is behind the counter mixing anchovy dressing for two orders of "appetizer Frank" (tomatoes with chopped egg) -- a dressing he has made thousands of times. He whisks together coddled egg, dry mustard, garlic, minced anchovy, salt and pepper, a little vinegar and oil. And not "EVOO" (extra-virgin olive oil), but what he calls "EVOL."
You've got to read it backward, he says.
Ever the pleaser
When Catherine Zeta-Jones comes in for lunch at the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills and tells Pablo Zelaya, "You know what I want? It's a tuna sandwich," that's what she gets (even though it isn't on the menu). Not because she's a celebrity, Zelaya insists, but because "I don't like to say no. It's like they say: 'The answer is yes. What is the question?' "
Zelaya landed a job at the Grill 25 years ago after working at the Chronicle in Santa Monica, when the alley was really just an alley (and not Fred Hayman Place) and the ceiling in the restaurant hadn't even been installed yet.
"Time went so fast," says Zelaya. "Once you come here, you stay. Everybody's been here a very long time."
Zelaya moved from El Salvador to Miami in 1968 and worked in New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco. "My idea was to travel, but I got to L.A. and fell for a girl. Now I'm a great-grandfather."
Before he was a waiter, Zelaya, 65, was a bartender for 20 years, but "I had to break out to the tables," he says.