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Ports’ Michaela Livingston Jumps Ship

It’s end-of-an-era time at Ports in Hollywood: Michaela Livingston, co-founder and co-owner of the clubby, idiosyncratic Santa Monica Boulevard institution, has severed her connection with the place. She plans to retire from the restaurant business, at least temporarily, she says, and move to Northern California. “It’s time,” she adds cryptically but with obvious finality. Her longtime associate at the restaurant, Philip Compton, will stay on as sole proprietor.

Livingston and her late husband Jock opened Ports in 1972. A larger-than-life actor-turned-restaurateur (he played Alexander Woollcott in “Star,” and looked a bit like Cezanne as Pissarro painted him), Jock had previously launched the Studio Grill just down the street, in partnership with artist Ardison Phillips. (The Livingstons subsequently sold their interest in that restaurant to Phillips, who continues to run it to this day.)

Ports was looser, more eccentric, than the earlier restaurant, with an immensely varied and often luminous clientele (one evening, for instance, I saw Michelangelo Antonioni, Claes Oldenburg, Rip Torn and designer Milton Glaser in different corners of the dining room) and a menu that was all over the culinary map, from Alsace ( choucroute garni ) to Mexico ( mole poblano ) to the Balkans (a Greek-inspired concoction called watercress and cheese pie, which Michaela made and which became--along with a sort of super-cheesecake called brandy cream pie--a favorite of the place).

Philip Compton joined the restaurant as a manager after Jock’s death in 1980 and, apart from a brief sabbatical, has helped Michaela run it ever since. Under their joint tutelage the place has changed dramatically in decor and clientele, but not all that much in menu philosophy. And it is still the sort of place where you might see, if not necessarily Antonioni, Oldenburg, Torn and Glaser, their ‘90s counterparts.

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Compton promises that Livingston’s departure will not bring radical alterations in Ports. “The menu’s still going to be that same old melting pot,” he says. “Something will probably change somewhere along the line, but I don’t know what or when.”

GOLLY GIO: Another Hollywood institution, albeit somewhat younger and more traditional than Ports, has undergone a different sort of transformation recently: Gio’s, which has served up dependable Italian/Continental food (with Brazilian accents) and cabaret entertainment for a dozen years on the site of the old L’Auberge on Sunset Boulevard, has closed--or, rather, has been replaced by a disco/supper club called blak:bloo (sic). Frank Stallone, brother of you-know-who, is among the owners of the new establishment. Gio’s fans needn’t despair completely, though: Gio Casara himself remains on the premises, running the dining room and kitchen, and offering many of the same dishes for which Gio’s was known.

MAPLE LEAVE: Julie Stone, co-owner and (until recently) manager of Maple Drive in Beverly Hills, has severed her day-to-day connection with the restaurant following a round of belt-tightening at the popular eatery. Stone, who retains an interest in Maple Drive, has returned temporarily to 72 Market Street in Venice (out of which Maple Drive developed) in a management capacity, but will leave that establishment this week on maternity leave. “I’ll be back at 72 in September,” she promises, “but I don’t think I’ll be going back to Maple Drive.” Meanwhile, Maple Drive executive chef Leonard Schwartz will manage both the dining room and the kitchen at the Beverly Hills restaurant.

COUSIN/CUCINA: The Long-Beach based University Restaurant Group, proprietors of 555 East and the Pine Avenue Fish House in Long Beach and of Ocean Avenue Seafood in Santa Monica, will open a new Santa Monica restaurant this week--I Cugini (“The Cousins”), a caffe/trattoria with gourmet market attached. The 250-seat, 9,500-square-foot establishment (2,000 of those square feet being outdoor patio space) will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, and promises (what else?) “moderate prices.” Michael Fink will oversee both I Cugini and Ocean Avenue Seafood, and Rebecca Matarazzi, most recently in the kitchen at Prego in Beverly Hills, has been named executive chef.

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Meanwhile, URG is now working on yet another project--this one in downtown L.A. Tentatively called the Water Grill, this new place will be located between 5th and 6th streets, next to the Biltmore Hotel. “Basically,” says Fink, “we’re in design right now. But I can tell you that it’s going to be a damn fine old-fashioned downtown seafood restaurant, complete with oyster bar. It will provide downtown with something it just doesn’t have. We don’t plan to duplicate Ocean Avenue Seafood, though. Our general plan is for food that probably might be a little more sophisticated. We’re going to do some different things.” The Water Grill is slated for a January or February opening.

SALT AND PEPPER: Chapo on Melrose Avenue, in conjunction with Hollywood’s Little Red Schoolhouse, is currently exhibiting a selection of food-themed art by Schoolhouse students. The works are for sale, and proceeds will be donated to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. The show continues through June 23. . . . Raja, on Pico Boulevard just south of Beverly Hills, remains open while undergoing an interior redesign (by architect Sat Garg, whose other local restaurant interiors include Sostanza and Nawab). A new chef, Kishan Lal, has also been imported from Bombay, and is creating a new menu for the restaurant. . . . Speaking of Sostanza, that West L.A. Italian trattoria is now preparing “executive box lunches” to take out, Monday through Friday, priced from $15 to $20 per meal. . . . It’s crab city at a number of local restaurants currently: Gardens at the Four Seasons Hotel in L.A. is featuring numerous soft-shell crab dishes on both its lunch and dinner menus, through the end of June; Orleans, also in L.A., offers a selection of soft-shell crab preparations of its own, for as long as the season lasts, and Ocean Avenue Seafood in Santa Monica will positively crawl with soft-shell specialties from June 21 through July 31. . . . And one last seasonal note: It’s green corn tamale time at El Cholo.


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