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Restaurant Review : So Just Who Is Stanley, and Why Are All Those People Eating at His Place?

The first time I went to Stanley’s, I couldn’t get in. It was an evening last winter, my friend Kate and I were all dressed up, and the place was full, so full that we were stopped at the door by a big man sitting on a stool who told us that there wasn’t even any standing room.

He made a gesture at the other 10 or 12 people all dressed in their good clothes who were hugging themselves and stamping their feet in front of the building. We could get in after they were admitted, he said.

Although we were quite curious to know what was inside that made so many people want to get in on a Thursday evening, we were sure it wasn’t Yo-Yo Ma, who alone might have given us the incentive to hang around on a sidewalk in miniskirts freezing to death. So we left without unraveling the mystery within.

The next time I showed up at Stanley’s, it was lunchtime, spring, and we were seated right away. I was with my cousins from Philadelphia, Diane and Bob, and they, of course, loved the place, because it looked just like what they’d been given to believe California restaurants are supposed to look like: white, bright, split-level, full of concrete, glass, sunlight and ricocheting noise.

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Diane leaned across our concrete slab table. “It’s really very . . .,” she said something else that I didn’t catch.

I leaned closer. “What did you say?” I yelled. “Did you say trendy?”

“Noisy!”

Oh. Nevertheless, I was very glad I brought them to Stanley’s; the hubbub was lively and cheering. Diane loved her fresh hot scallop salad with a honey-lime dressing, and I liked my very basic, straightforward fresh tomato-and-basil pizza. Only Bob, working on turkey fajitas, was truly bored, and for good reason: The meat tasted like spiced-up leftovers, and the tortillas were white, undercooked and waxy. Both Bob and Diane spoke fondly, however, of the margaritas.

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I still hadn’t seen what it was at night that occasioned the lines at the door, so I enlisted two girlfriends on a Friday night. “Do you have reservations?” Kate asked with justifiable suspicion.

“We’ll just go early,” I assured her. Sure enough, at 6:30, there were plenty of seats in the nonsmoking section. But the rooms filled up quickly, and with all sorts of people, not just singles. There were families and older couples and business-type people who might have come straight from the office. The din was deafening.

“It’s funny,” said Laurie. “You hear a lot of noise, but you can’t really hear what the people at the next table are saying.”

“You can barely hear what the people at this table are saying,” said Kate.

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We split a Caesar salad three ways; it was tossed at the table. There wasn’t any egg put in at the last minute or anything so dramatic; our cheerful, very pretty actress-to-be waitress simply mixed the romaine and croutons with a passable garlicky dressing.

We also split the soft tacos appetizer: The marinated beef was tasty, but again, the tortillas, corn this time, were undercooked and rubbery.

Busboys careened by holding stacks of bread baskets or trays of water. The women at the next table tapped Kate on the back and asked her about her hair color. A baseball game played on a screen set snugly into the wall over the bar. The problem with the hip cement tables is that they weren’t overly comfortable: The center post was so thick and big, we were constantly shifting our knees and feet this way and that.

At one point, we asked our good-natured waitress, “Who’s Stanley?”

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She gave a part shrug.

Is there a Stanley?”

“Who knows?”

Our dinners came and were huge. Kate’s salmon with tomato linguine and fresh vegetables, a special, could have fed all three of us. Laurie’s Cajun meat loaf, two slabs of orangish, close-grained ground meat, tasted far better than it looked, and her mashed potatoes stole the show. I had the sauteed soft-shell crabs, which were a mistake; they were greasy and limp and, as Kate said, tasted like old Scotch tape. The accompaniments--parboiled vegetables and yellow rice with flecks of vegetables--were unexciting.

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We split a chocolate chip cookie cake with vanilla ice cream. The cake tasted like a variety of cookie batter designed to be cooked not on a sheet but in a pan; this slice was the equivalent of six or seven cookies and very salty, headachy-sweet and greasy.

By the time we finished eating, there was a full line stretching from the front desk to the door, and the bar was so crowded there was standing room only. As we walked outside, we passed the big guy sitting on his stool. Any minute now, he’d be telling people they’d have to wait outside. Some would. We still couldn’t figure out why.

Stanley’s

13817 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. (818) 986-4623.

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Food service from 11:30 a.m. to midnight Tuesday through Saturday; to 11 p.m. Sunday and Monday. (Dinner menu from 4 p.m.) American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Full bar open to 2 a.m. Valet parking.

Recommended dishes: Cajun meat loaf, $9.95; warm scallop salad, $9.95; margaritas, $3.50-$4.


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