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RESTAURANTS : How to Design a Down-Home Joint

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The new Dominick’s is nothing like the swank restaurant in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Nowhere near as fancy as the joint where Jack Nicholson toasted Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown.” Certainly not as bright as the cafe in “Dick Tracy.” But Richard Sylbert, the production designer on these movies, is the man behind the look of the new Dominick’s Restaurant. In Hollywood, it takes high art to make a down-home joint. And Sylbert has devised an equally simple, equally sophisticated setting for this quintessential remake of a 1940s roadhouse.

The old Dominick’s, a comfy clubhouse for the movie crowd, opened in 1948 and closed in the mid-'80s after Dom died. Sinatra and the Rat Pack hung out there, with Shirley MacLaine as their mascot. I.A.L. Diamond outlined “Some Like It Hot” in a dark booth, George Axelrod ate there during “The Manchurian Candidate.” The Wassermans had a table. You saw Errol Flynn and studio heads. There were Billy Wilder and Swifty Lazar, Jack Lemmon and Blake Edwards. And, of course, Shirley’s brother Warren Beatty. Just about everybody in the movies went to this dark little dive.

Dom had strange rules. If you came in through the front door, you were out of the club. But call with the proper introduction, then come in the back, through the kitchen, and you were OK. Dominick’s, the restaurant that tried hard to look closed, was called “the worst best-kept secret in the world.”

Dominick always parked his white Cadillac out back and always kept his white neon sign off. Old Hills Brothers coffee cans spruced up with plastic flowers caught drips from a leaky roof, and the jukebox offered a classy selection of ‘40s favorites like Glenn Miller, Bunny Berigan and Sinatra. “New York, New York” was always playing, and, as the night wore on, Dom joined from the bar. Because there was no air conditioning, he closed for the summer. You knew Dom had gone fishing when you saw the windows papered over.

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Dom’s was Los Angeles’ answer to Elaine’s, a jam-packed place with no pretensions, as long as you knew the owner. But by the ‘80s, Sylbert found himself dining there with his daughter, alone but for one other couple, the Wassermans.

New owner Lynne Giler, an old friend of Sylbert’s, wanted just one thing: the old Dominick’s, circa 1948, like you’d just walked onto the movie set of “Road House.” Sylbert had never worked on a restaurant in “real life,” but he set out to reconstruct a classic eatery so dark you couldn’t see the food. First he went to Bob Tepper, who’d worked with him on the kitchen for Michelle Pfeiffer’s restaurant in “Tequila Sunrise.” Tepper supplied the basics for the bar, kitchen and place settings. With Tepper, Sylbert chose the sort of white ironstone plates you can bounce, and the cheapest, most classic designs of the era.

Then he went after knotty pine wood paneling. Not just any knotty pine, but 1940s rec room “butterfly” knotty pine siding. It had to be custom-made; lumberyards no longer sold the stuff. So Sylbert asked the men at the carpentry mill at Paramount to run the special tongue and groove siding off for him. The interior wasn’t dark enough, so he walled over the windows that one of the misguided, post-Dom owners had cut in the side wall.

And there was the matter of paint. Despite the near-historic restoration, Dom’s looked too bright, too new. No problem for Sylbert, who is known in the business for using “asphaltum,” a mystery liquid he splashes over a set to give it instant character and patina. He brought the head painter over from Warners with a can of the stuff to show the contractor’s crew how to apply it. To finish it off, Sylbert found a nice red vinyl for the cozy, comfy booths, and a little lamp for each table. Giler tracked down the jukebox king of L.A., Willie Marchand, and bought a totally restored 1952 Seeburg Select-O-Matic, stocked it up with Ellington, Miller and Sinatra and opened for business.

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The investors love the new clubhouse--guys like Guy McElwaine, Jeff Berg, Thom Mount, David Giler, Michael Mann and Walter Hill. The layout, from memory, is exactly the same as the original. (Well, OK, they added one booth.) The place seats 47--when it’s packed. And the neon light sign on top is still never lit.


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