Toward a New Dining Scene

Los Angeles, 1979: Restaurant trends included bistro-French cuisine, unlisted reservation numbers and the perplexing notion that arrogance somehow equalled prestige--a time when people were more concerned with who was at the next table than what was on the ends of their forks.

Those times seem long ago indeed, after we've become so inured to the culinary trends of the '80s: California cuisine; light, open spaces filled with modern art, and the concept of the chef as celebrity.

Hal Frederick has weathered--and mirrored--the changes himself. In 1979, he was co-owner of Robert's, a Venice restaurant-disco that was a West Coast terminus for Bianca Jagger and Truman Capote. Later, when Robert's chef Bruce Marder opened the West Beach Cafe, Frederick was maitre d' there.

Last year, Frederick opened Hal's Bar & Grill on West Washington Boulevard in Venice, a place where the famous and the hoi polloi both eat hearty fare prepared with fresh ingredients.

Question: What's the single biggest change in L.A. restaurants in the last decade?

Answer: That's a long time ago. I think it's been the evolution of the educated palate. People know more and expect more when they go out. It started with shopping properly, with the advent of Gelson's and Irvine Ranch Market. And I think the Europeans and Alice Waters (of Berkeley's Chez Panisse) have changed things a lot.

Q: How does one explain the popularity of diner food and meat loaf on the menus of fine restaurants?

A: On the one hand (people appreciate fine food), but there's been some overkill in the other direction. People are going back to what they knew, the food of their roots. But overall, people are much more health conscious than they used to be.

Q: What about the current trend to get veal off menus?

A: I'm not a great veal eater myself; milk-fed veal is not the greatest kind of delicacy you can have. But I don't think it will disappear because of animal rights protests. I think it'll be (treated in) the same way (in which) we don't go in and order a steak and French fries like we did before.

Q: Do you see the celebrity chef trend waxing or waning?

A: I think it's obvious that the best restaurants have been chef-owner restaurants. The guy who owns his own restaurant is ahead of people like myself who in some way are dependent on an outside chef. But I'm not concerned with stardom and all that. . . .

I think that Wolfgang (Puck, of Spago) was in the right place at the right time, dealt with the right kind of PR backing. He's a package--a very talented package, but a package.

Q: What is the best aspect of the L.A. dining scene now?

A: People are getting sensible about charges. You don't have to spend $175 for a meal. There's a profusion of really good dining places at somewhat reasonable prices. People in the (restaurant) business are finally realizing that they can't rip customers off.

But what's really made the change is diversity. There used to be people who went only to Chasen's or only to Michael's. There was no mix. Film directors went one place, doctors and lawyers went to another, etc. Now there's this ecumenical number that's going on. That's what made restaurants interesting again.

Q: How do you see restaurant-going evolving in the '90s?

A: I think people are going to be more careful of how they treat their bodies with food; not religious about it, but more intelligent about what they put in their mouths. I've noticed there's a great deal less imbibing of alcohol, not out of fear of drinking and driving but just because people are getting more moderate.

Q: Do you think the '80s have brought more truely great restaurants to L.A. than ever before?

A: I wouldn't say "great." We've got one or two--and I'm not going to name them. But we have very many very good restaurants, and it will continue because we have this extraordinary audience to perform for.

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