The first time I called Olive, it was named Tiny's, and the phone was answered by a surly sounding person. "How'd you get this number?" he wanted to know. I didn't want to say, so I hung up.
Months passed. Olive appeared in publications all over the country; it was, we read, the hippest, hottest place in Los Angeles, a hangout for the beautiful people. It had humor, it had class. It had a chef, Fred Eric, who became famous cooking at a club called Flaming Colossus. Everybody wanted to go to Olive--and almost nobody could.
Every once in a while, I'd call and try to make a reservation under an assumed name. I'd always get the same response: Who was I, and how did I get the number? Then, a couple of weeks ago, the response changed. A very nice woman answered the phone. "Reservations for tomorrow night?" she asked. "How many people?" I was so shocked I almost dropped the phone.
Going into Olive is a shock of another kind. On the outside, it is a plain, cinder-block building next to the Farmer's Daughter Motel, which sits on a rather dowdy strip of Fairfax Avenue. On the inside, once your eyes adjust to the dim light, you find yourself in the darkest, smokiest and, above all, the noisiest restaurant you can imagine. The sound reverberates ferociously through the small room. What you can see of the decor seems to be left over from a previous incarnation: The main decorative element is the people who swarm about the bar that dominates the center of the room. Along one wall are booths, which look quite comfortable. They are reserved, of course. Your table is one of those small, uncomfortable ones topped with electric candles that give off almost no light.
"You want one of these?" the waitress might say, appearing with a couple of small birthday candles. Unless you've memorized the menu, you probably do.
The menu itself is fairly cryptic; three of the 23 items are "no animal at all" (the appetizer), "no animal at all" (the entree) and "no animal at all soup." There is also something called "booster box." If the waitress remembers, she might bring you an additional menu filled with equally exotic specials--but she may not remember. In my experience, she doesn't.
Very few people seem to drink wine here, which is a shame. The wine list is a knowing one, filled with unusual choices such as the fine Pagor Pinot Noir, the robust Zinfandel from Green and Red and the delicious Au Bon Climat Reserve Chardonnay. Unfortunately, the service is not as hip as the list. Under rose wines are two choices: Domaine St. George white Zinfandel and Domaine Tempier Bandol, in my opinion the world's most appealing rose. "We'll have the Tempier Bandol Rose," I said. "Huh?" said the waitress. She looked puzzled. "Show me," she said. I pointed to the list. "Oh," she said crossly, as if I had committed some terrible social blunder, "you want the Domaine. " (It was as if I'd ordered Chateau Lafite, and she'd called it "Chateau.")
She didn't have much patience for talking about the menu, either--but who can blame her? It must get very boring, night after night, explaining all the variations on "no animal" as well as decoding mysteries such as "Tra La La salad" (don't ask).
The booster box takes the longest to explain. But even after the waitress has described the langoustines , shrimp toast, mussels, noodles and spring rolls filled with eel, you'll be completely unprepared for the production that actually arrives. It's really a board, not a box, and it towers over the table looking like a cross between a pu - pu platter at Trader Vic's and a child's exhibit at a science fair. A fishnet made of fried potatoes dangles from a sort of metal-hook contraption. The claws of huge fried shrimp grasp for the net, while a tangle of rice noodles curls beneath it like so much seaweed. There are clams and mussels down there, too, and slabs of shrimp toast resembling some exotic wildlife on the ocean floor. Vietnamese spring rolls, wrapped up in rice dough, glow in the dark like sea anemones, and a tall construction of vegetables, topped with a single spear of asparagus, apes another form of marine life. How can you see this bizarre conglomeration of edibles? By the light of two red birthday candles, propped up by lemon wedges.
It's pretty funny--and pretty bland. You'd get better versions of this and other dishes at most of the Thai and Vietnamese restaurants in town. And at a fraction of its outrageous $24 price.
But there are other outrages in store: filet au poivre in a thick, floury sauce, a soggy Caesar salad and the $14 "no animal at all" entree, which is a small, crunchy, barely cooked acorn squash filled with bits of cauliflower and broccoli (the unfortunate friend who ordered it pronounced it "the single worst dish I've ever been served in a restaurant").
There are high points. West Indian seafood stew--a special--wasn't as hot as promised; still, I liked the mix of shrimp, salmon, sea bass, rice and beans. Grilled rare tuna was also a pleasure. But the best thing, every time I've eaten at Olive, has been the $8 hamburger, which is made of very good meat and comes with an enormous heap of excellent French fries. Were I to go back, that's what I'd order.
But I'd say the chances of my going back are fairly slim. Most of the people who work there--the maitre d' who takes you to your table while talking officiously into a portable phone, the waiter who shows up with cold food an hour after you've ordered it--appear to believe you're lucky to be eating there.
Most patrons seem to agree, among them a well-dressed man of about 45, hovering at the bar. He sidles up to a gorgeous young woman, points behind him and says, "I'd like to introduce you to my son. Had him when I was 6--I'm in the 'Guinness Book of World Records.' " There's a wistful quality to his voice; if he could be younger, he would.
Olive has a different effect on me. Looking around the room, I realized that for once I was in a restaurant filled with very young and very beautiful people who did not make me feel old. They just made me feel grown-up. Too grown-up to be there.
Olive, 119 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 939-2001. Open nightly for dinner. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$50.