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RESTAURANTS : Roadhouse Rendezvous : Dominick’s is back, serving big, basic, satisfying dishes in an atmosphere that recalls its original charm

“I’m not looking for business.” That’s what Dominick used to say to people he hadn’t heard of when they called to reserve a table. The people he had heard of--people you had heard of too--came in the back door and sat down to steaks that were only fair, French fries that were pretty good and martinis that were great.

Dominick’s, in its heyday, was a Hollywood institution. It was a roadhouse conceived in the same spirit as Marie Antoinette’s farm--a place where rich people could pretend they were just folks.

As such, it was terrifically successful. The room itself was small, dark, folksy and cozy--it looked like a place you would find off some back road in Montana. Wood-paneled, it had a great jukebox, lumpy red leatherette booths and rather dim light provided by lamps that looked as if they had been a summer camp craft project. If the food occasionally included frozen peas, nobody seemed to mind; Dominick’s was fun.

Then, about five years ago, Dominick passed away and the restaurant passed into other hands. The people who bought it had the sense to leave the place alone, although they did attempt to upgrade the food somewhat. The frozen peas disappeared. There was an occasional discordant note, such as blue corn chips with guacamole, but--for the most part--the institution rolled along relatively undisturbed.

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The economics of running a restaurant so small, however, proved difficult. In fairly short order, Dominick’s changed hands again. Disaster! This time the restaurant was completely gutted, and when it reopened, it was unrecognizable. Dominick’s had become a cutesy pastel parody of itself, serving food with too many ingredients (rock crab ravioli with vanilla butter sauce is one I remember with particular horror). When this incarnation of the restaurant failed, it seemed like justice.

Now everybody’s favorite roadhouse is back. Really back. Only in Hollywood would you bring in a set designer to re-create a restaurant on its very own site (see related story). And, except for the lamps--which are all wrong--this is a re-creation that outshines the original.

But if the look is the same, the attitude is different. Attitude, with a capital A, is absent; Dominick’s now has a heart. The famous still come flocking in, and although they own the place (almost every investor is someone you have heard of), they don’t act as if they do.

On a typical night, Emilio Estevez occupies one table, Robert Stack another and publisher Katherine Graham a third, but if they are being treated better than the rest of us, I, for one, can’t tell. This is now a place where everybody feels welcome. Dominick’s may not be a Montana roadhouse, but it feels like one.

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The waitresses--who tend to wear torn jeans with an endearingly scruffy look--are swell. “Can I have just a baked potato and creamed spinach?” I asked mine one night. “Why not?” she replied, pushing her short, bright, blond hair back and anchoring it there with a pencil. “How about a salad first?”

I opted for the salad--and was very sorry I had. There isn’t a good one on the menu. The house salad, a re-creation of the one that was served at the original Dominick’s, is worth ordering only for the sake of nostalgia; newcomers to this mix of iceberg lettuce, diced yellow cheese, salami, radishes and crumbled blue cheese are likely to wonder why a sane person would pay $7 for such a silly mixture. The mixed green salad isn’t much better; it has cottony tomatoes and a dressing that tastes as if it came from a bottle. The Caesar salad is nothing to write home about. If you must have a first course, go for one of the specials, the soup of the day or the herring in sour cream (another nod to nostalgia).

But who orders a first course in a roadhouse? Appetizers are for sissies, and the portions here are big. Stick to the best of the entrees and you won’t need to eat anything first.

Pick hits here include lamb chops, which come with either the traditional mint jelly or the rather chichi Bordelaise sauce. Steak--a decent steak, although not a wonderful one--comes with a couple of onion rings strewn across the top. Pork chops come with apple sauce, hot or cold, and vegetables. These tend to be simple American preparations, such as crisply sauteed carrots, served in giant portions.

The best thing I have found on the menu, however, is the hamburger steak. This is a good, big chunk of meat, filled with flavor and nestled on a bed of sweetly caramelized onions. In true roadhouse fashion, it comes with crisp French fries and sliced tomatoes--those cottony ones.

The daily specials tend to be such dishes as grilled swordfish, barbecued shrimp and chili, with occasional forays into the exotic, including rabbit--both braised and grilled--and shark. All these dishes tend to be big, satisfying, unremarkable.

Desserts are much the same. The best I have had was a big, gooey brownie topped with a big, gooey scoop of vanilla ice cream. It is exactly the sort of dish to eat in a place you’ve come to as an antidote to restaurants where you have to think about too much.

At Dominick’s you don’t have to think at all. Just walk in and forget about time and place. This could be anywhere in America, any time in the last 50 years. Today’s Dominick’s doesn’t need your business any more than the original did--but the new owners wouldn’t dream of telling you so.

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Dominick’s

8715 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 657-8314.

Open for dinner only, Monday-Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $40-$80.

Recommended dishes: hamburger steak with caramelized onions and French fries, $11; lamb chops with mint jelly, $26.50; pork chops with apple sauce, $18; brownie with ice cream, $5.75.


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