EATING UP THE L.A. EXPERIENCE

I was having lunch at 72 Market Street, a restaurant that I have come increasingly to admire. Behind me, a woman from out of town was asking owner Tony Bill where she should go for the "quintessential L.A. experience." Bill considered for a moment and then suggested Morton's. "Ninety percent of the people there," he said, "are agents or something."

Eavesdropping on this conversation, it occurred to me that Morton's was probably an experience I shouldn't miss. But just to make sure that the field trip was complete, I asked my friend Mr. Movie to come along as a guide. This, it turned out, was a big mistake.

Now we all keep reading that places like Morton's are miserable if you are neither in the know nor well known. Actually, my experience proved quite the contrary. I did have to wait until Mr. Movie showed up before they deigned to seat me, but once I was in my chair I had a perfectly pleasant dinner. Not Mr. Movie: It took him 20 minutes to walk the few feet from the entrance to the table, and then he barely had time to eat. To him this was not a meal, it was a business appointment.

"Look," he said when we came in the door, "there's Ronee Blakley. And there's Bess Armstrong." He then proceeded to point around the room, rattling off a lot of names that I had never heard, before heading off for a few hellos. He knew everybody in the place. By the time he finished pressing the flesh, the rest of us at our table had consumed the better part of the Jordan Chardonnay and the waiter was hovering around, trying to hand us the little straw place mats that the menu is taped to. Mr. Movie said he'd have the specials and then sprinted off to do some more business.

Meanwhile, we others sat back in the pleasantly casual room and ate our appetizers. The food is simple, decently cooked and does not call too much attention to itself. Obviously, if you've come to work you don't want to be distracted by what is on the table. I had asparagus vinaigrette in an emulsified and very vinegary dressing and my friends had salads of various types--all good. Just before the waiter took the plates away, Mr. Movie dashed back to devour a plate of rather watery wild mushrooms.

He was gone again by the time the fine fat hamburger was set on the table, a mountain of skinny French fries by its side. We also had a decent prime rib ("Our specialty" said the waiter), served with the traditional sour cream and chive-topped potato. I was a bit dubious about the lamb marinated in a very sweet dressing, but delighted with Mr. Movie's special of grilled chicken with black beans and tomatillo salsa. It was tender, beautifully grilled and delicious; I was thrilled that he was too busy working the room to have time to eat most of it. "Wasn't there some left?" he asked suspiciously when he came back to his empty plate. The rest of us just smiled.

He stuck around for dessert. We shared a decadent hot fudge sundae, a piece of pecan pie and a very appley apple pie. "Great food!" said Mr. Movie as we left. I thought that a slight exaggeration; this is satisfying, but not very thrilling, fare. "It was pretty good," I replied, "but you spent so little time eating it that I'm surprised you even noticed."

As I was driving home, I thought that there must be more to the quintessential L.A. experience than this. Surely not everybody in the Industry is a workaholic eager to eat food that requires very little thought. As I remembered Tony Bill's words, it occurred to me that when it comes to L.A. experiences, it's hard to beat the one at his own 72 Market St.

It is, after all, owned by a couple of genuine movie stars (Bill and Dudley Moore are two of the partners). It is also filled with local art and constantly packed with people in the Industry. But the restaurant is more relaxed than frantic, especially at night when the piano is being played in the large white dining room in back. And although this may be straightforward American fare, the food is anything but forgettable. In fact, the food here keeps quietly getting better and better.

What makes this food remarkable is that chef Leonard Schwartz takes dishes like meat loaf and catfish and black bean soup so very seriously. The meat loaf, served with buttery spinach and smoothly mashed potatoes, makes you sit up and take notice. The Cajun catfish has creamy white flesh that is smooth and soft beneath its crunchy golden cornmeal crust. Black bean soup comes with wonderful jalapeno corn muffins on the side, just lightly grilled. Even the hamburger here is out of the ordinary.

Not all the dishes, of course, are quite so simple. Although the oyster bar offers various shellfish in their natural state, there are other choices. Squid comes marinated in tomatillos and lime juice, mussels are dolled up with saffron and tomato, and oysters come topped with both pesto and salsa. These are dusted with a sprinkling of cheese before being slid under the broiler. They emerge fat and sassy and entirely tasty. Salads go from straightforward greens to the quite baroque, like the chicken decked out with roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts and goat cheese.

Most of the regular menu is taken up by simple dishes like grilled free-range chicken or lamb chops with potato pancakes. The specials are more complex; one night there were sweet giant prawns topped with a tangle of vegetables--snow peas, sliced shiitake, green beans--all sitting on a bright bed of spinach and bathed in a gentle sesame vinaigrette.

I should also mention that the steak tartare, awful when the restaurant opened, is now as good a version as you will ever get. It costs $24; it's worth it.

Morton's is a nice restaurant, and if you have to work while you're eating, this is a pretty good place to do it. Still, I'd like to think that when it comes to quintessential Los Angeles experiences, 72 Market St. is more the ticket. People who come here may be in the Industry and they may be working, but when they do it here they look like they are having fun.

Morton's, 8800 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. (213) 276-5205. Open for dinner only, Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$80.

72 Market St., 72 Market St., Venice. (213) 392-8720. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for brunch on Sunday, daily for dinner. Full bar. Valet parking. MasterCard, Visa and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$80.

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