Secrets of Dining a Deux Despite the Din

Over lunch a few months ago, a gentleman I'd just met began raving about how much he and his wife "absolutely adore Spago--not just the food but the scene, the action, the energy level . . . the noise."

Dumbfounded that anyone could actually enjoy the noise at Spago (or anywhere else), I managed to stammer, "But don't you like to talk to the people you're having dinner with?"

He looked at me as if I'd just asked if he still engaged in primitive sexual practices with his mother-in-law.

"No," he replied. "I never want to talk to anyone I go to dinner with."

Clearly, this fellow is not alone, judging from the success of restaurants as diverse as Spago, Rebecca's, the Hard Rock Cafe, Chinois, Citrus, Nicky Blair's, L.A. Ole, the Palm and perhaps two dozen other places that seem to specialize in clamor on the half-yell.

As one who thoroughly enjoys dinner-table conversation--and who frequently suffers from horrendously bad sore throats brought on by voice strain--I boycott most noisy restaurants. Such a boycott is easy when the food isn't particularly good, of course, but no one who likes to eat well can boycott Chinois or Citrus. They are unique--and uniquely wonderful. So how does one cope with the noise at such restaurants?

One answer is to dine early. That's what I usually do at Chinois. Another tip: Don't go to a noisy restaurant with a large party; the larger the party, the fewer your options for selecting a table, and the larger the table will be (which means you'll have to shout to be heard by someone across the table). I only go to the Palm as part of a twosome--preferably with my fiancee, so we can sit right next to each other and go lip to ear over the cottage fries without inviting curious glances.

If you want general guidelines for finding a quiet table, consider these:

Try to avoid sitting at a banquette where you will be sandwiched between other parties on both sides.

Try to avoid sitting at any table where you will be surrounded by other parties on all sides.

Ask for a booth or a corner table or a table against a wall--any table that is somehow separated, however slightly, from most of the rest.

But sometimes these general guidelines are not enough, and I've actually made it a point to test various table locations at my favorite restaurants, searching for the specific tables where conversation is possible. Almost invariably, there is such a table, and when I find it, I ask the maitre d' what number it is, and ask for that table, by number, when I make a reservation. (Restaurants usually number their tables to enable waiters and the kitchen staff to communicate with each other quickly and clearly.)

I've never cared about having a "good" table in the sense that term is generally used--a table where one can see and be seen--but I have come to regard a quiet table as a virtual prerequisite for fine dining, more important than anything except the food and the company.

Take Citrus, for example. The patio at Citrus is as popular as it is pleasant--which means it's very noisy. So, much as I love to eat outside, I eat inside at Citrus; specifically, I ask for either table No. 1 or table No. 8, both corner tables, far from the patio.

In contrast, I always ask for a table in the garden at Michael's in Santa Monica. Not only is it the prettiest outdoor spot in the city in which to eat fine food, it's also much quieter than the tables inside.

A few other specifics:

If you want to try the wonderful, rustic pastas and risotto at Il Giardino in Beverly Hills, ask for one of the three tables in the back of the restaurant--Nos. 14, 15 and 16, in an elevated area slightly removed from the other tables.

If you prefer the artistic, innovative Southwestern cuisine of the newly renovated St. Estephe in Manhattan Beach, ask for table No. 6, in the far back corner of the restaurant, partially hidden (and protected from the noise) by the protruding portion of a small wall. You like the Cajun/Creole food at the Ritz in West Los Angeles? I'm not a big fan, but when I do go there, I ask for a booth.

You want French food in elegant surroundings? At L'Orangerie in Beverly Hills, ask for any free-standing table or a table at the end (not in the middle) of the banquettes--or, in warm weather, ask for a table in the small atrium.

Even restaurants that are generally quiet can be noisy at times if several parties are seated close to each other. Thus, at La Toque in West Hollywood, I always ask for table No. 14, in the far rear left-hand corner of the restaurant; table No. 14 is not only the quietest table, it also offers the most privacy--and a clear view of the front door if you're waiting for someone.

At Valentino in Santa Monica there are several quiet tables, but the best are probably No. 15 (in the corner of the main dining room) and Nos. 7, 8 and 21 (in alcoves, against the front tapestry-covered wall).

And what of Wolfgang Puck's twin success stories, Spago and Chinois? Tables against the front windows are generally the quietest--well, the least noisy anyway--at both restaurants, but Spago usually reserves them for stars, regulars and other VIPs. (Why is it that only at Spago am I reminded that the French slang for VIP is gros legume-- "big vegetable"?)

Some restaurants have no quiet tables, of course. That's been my experience at the West Beach Cafe in Venice, never one of my favorite restaurants. One night several years ago, the music on the restaurant stereo system was blaring so loudly through the speaker mounted directly over my table that I asked four times to have it turned down so I could get at least a vague idea what my dining companion was saying. My requests--the first two polite, the third polite but insistent, the fourth merely insistent--brought no results.

So I calmly took off my right shoe and lobbed it underhanded up toward the offending speaker. The speaker fell off the wall, into my waiting arms--blissfully silenced. I put it under the table. My companion looked frantically around the room, certain we were about to be evicted--if not arrested.

But no one had seen--or, God knows, heard--a thing.

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