RESTAURANTS : NICE IS NOT ENOUGH : With Its Freeway Decor and Boring Food, Schatzi Could Be an Appetite Terminator

Here's the question: Why would Arnold Schwarzenegger want to open a restaurant?

Here's the next: Why would he want to open this one?

Most people think that running a restaurant is easy, but most people are wrong. It takes passion to do it really well; lacking that, no matter how much money you spend, all you end up with is a room with some food.

A lot of money has certainly been spent here. The location, on Main Street in Santa Monica, is prime. The designer, Adam Tihany, is one of the best in the country (other Tihany designs include his own Remi, also in Santa Monica). Schwarzenegger procured the services of a locally known and respected restaurant manager, August Spier (he's worked at West Beach, 72 Market Street and DC3). He tried out chefs from all over town (even Michel Blanchet of L'Ermitage reportedly auditioned for the job) before settling on Michael Rosen, former sous-chef at Maple Drive. Schwarzenegger picked out a name, and when he learned that it was already taken, he was not fazed: For a few dollars more, the name Schatzi--which means "dear" or "sweetheart"--was his. He finished the job by hiring a good maitre d' and an extraordinarily friendly and knowledgeable staff.

Never has so much talent been so richly squandered.

Just look at this room. Tihany has designed some of the world's most beautiful restaurants--the late Hubert's in New York was particularly appealing--but he's gone wrong here. Schatzi looks like nothing so much as one of those refrigerated restaurants that you stumble into after too long on the road. There is so little sense of place that if you walked outside and found yourself in the middle of Iowa, you would not be surprised. The look is probably intended to convey casual fun, but the coved brick ceilings, ivy-topped columns and brightly striped booths are, like the Hawaiian shirts sported by all of the waiters, mostly hokey. If this is Americana, it's Americana with a smirk.

The menu is much the same; it democratically tries to offer something for everybody but ends up pleasing no one. Well, almost no one: Schwarzenegger must be proud of the single best dish on the menu, Wiener schnitzel. The classic test of the great Austrian dish is that you should be able to sit on it without getting grease on your pants. While I've never met a version that could pass the test, this one comes close: good veal, very lightly breaded and fried with a knowing hand. It comes with spaetzle , wonderful curls of homemade noodles that have just the right buttery lumpiness to make them authentic.

The next best dish is turkey meatloaf, undistinguished as meatloafs go but accompanied by very good homemade cranberry relish and wonderfully comforting cheese grits. There's a good veal chop too (although it would be nice if that corn pudding on the side were not housed in such a mingy little cup), and the rack of lamb is good meat nicely cooked. The fish--swordfish, poached salmon, tuna--are decent. After that, it's pretty much downhill.

What can you say about a pizza topped with corn and okra? How happy can you be with broiled asparagus? What self-respecting blintz ever found itself stuffed with crab meat? (The salsa on this doesn't help much, either.) Tempura vegetables sounds sophisticated, but it's just a big plate of fried food. The chicken pot pie is a soggy plate of stuff topped with a little circle of pastry, and the curried chicken breast tastes like nothing so much as a Midwestern chicken trying desperately to be exotic.

For dessert, it's back to the interstate. Everything's big--and gilded. Banana cream pie comes with chocolate sauce. Apple strudel is hot--and topped with vanilla ice cream. The bread pudding is black, white and heavy (the vanilla sauce doesn't help much). The best of the desserts is the ice cream sundae, which is too modest to call itself a banana split, even though it comes with lots of bananas, hot fudge and chopped nuts. It makes you proud to be an American.

Schatzi does have one shining moment every day--breakfast.

The food is unabashedly hearty, the sun comes streaming in, obscuring the more annoying details of the room, the service is as friendly and efficient as it would be at any roadside emporium--and the food is good. The kitchen does nice things with eggs and toast and potato pancakes, and there's a fine corned-beef hash. The only irritating detail of the menu is its insistence on low-fat milk. If I can eat bacon and sausages here, why should I have to feel guilty about asking for cream on my oatmeal?

Schatzi makes a big deal of how unpretentious and friendly it is. That's no lie. Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger has sacrificed everything else in the attempt to tell the world what a simple, friendly, down-home guy he is.

Maybe that's the answer to the questions.

Schatzi on Main, 3110 Main St., Santa Monica ; (310) 399- 4800. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner and for brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Valet and garage parking. Dinner for two, food only, $34-$75.

Food stylist: Alice M. Hart/Food for Film

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