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Bidding Adieu to the Nickodell Restaurant : Longtime Hollywood Watering Hole Runs Dry in an Era of Sprouts and Bottled Water

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s not just that the Nickodell Restaurant is one of the last martini and club steak joints left in a town of bottled water and tuna tacos. It’s not just that the Melrose Avenue eatery has been a hangout for Paramount Pictures actors and technicians since the 1920s. It’s not just that Nickodell’s towering neon sign flashes a cozy welcome in white, blue and yellow over an increasingly drab strip.

Those things combined, and more, come to mind, Nickodell’s partisans say as they sadly learn of its Nov. 30 closing. Above all, they mourn that another old-fashioned, admittedly a bit tattered, touchstone of Los Angeles life is disappearing in an era of fast food and virtual reality.

“It’s just another sad note in the death of Hollywood,” sighed veteran actress Peggy Rea, who has cherished the dark-paneled banquettes, the white tablecloths, the chopped salads and hot beef sandwiches at Nickodell since her days as a production secretary on the “Gunsmoke” show through her roles on “The Waltons” and other series.

“There’s no other place like Nicks. I’m going to miss it terribly,” she added during a recent dinner. “There are so few restaurants in town where you can get anything you want cooked the way you want it. From here you go into the world of alfalfa sprouts.”

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The proprietors emphasize that changing tastes in food, the recession, rising insurance costs and a declining east Hollywood neighborhood are forcing the restaurant to close. “I still don’t believe it myself, but it has to be done,” said Steve Sorich, a former waiter who owns Nickodell with former cook and fellow Croatian immigrant James Ban.

For example, Nickodell used to have 11 waitresses on lunch duty when Paramount next doorwas churning out more studio-based films and television shows and when Lucille Ball had her Desilu studio humming just down the street, he said. Now two waitresses can handle the smaller lunch trade, and the late-night drinking scene has shriveled.

The building, at 5511 Melrose, a block east of Gower Street, has been owned by Paramount since 1990. A studio spokesman, who requested anonymity, said there are no immediate plans for the site. “It’s sort of all up in the air,” he said.

But suspicious preservationists hope for a reprieve, if not for Nickodell as it now exists, then for the pale blue building--or at least for the big sign that went up in the early 1950s. A group of Nickodell lovers plan a demonstration outside the restaurant at 4 p.m. Tuesday to grab Paramount’s attention.

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“We just want to try and convince Paramount to bring in another restaurant or club to take over the place, or any other use besides a parking lot,” said Rocky Schenck, a Hollywood photographer and video director who is among the protest leaders. “Paramount, I think, is sensitive to Hollywood’s history.”

Schenck comes to Nickodell several times a month for a baked potato ($2 with sour cream and chives) and its well-known Caesar salad ($7.50), tossed at table-side. “I like the waitresses, I like the atmosphere, I like the lighting. I love the fact that it hasn’t been discovered by too many trendies yet, that there is an interesting mix of old and young, hipsters and nerds,” he said.

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Devotees compare Nickodell to two other Hollywood landmarks that offer double martini lunches and rooms dark enough to flatter actors of a certain age--Musso & Frank Grill and the Formosa Cafe.

The Formosa was threatened with demolition two years ago under a Warner Bros. studio expansion plan, but community outrage led to a compromise under which the West Hollywood watering hole will be moved slightly east along Santa Monica Boulevard. The Nickodell situation, however, is less clear-cut and the building is not likely to receive Los Angeles city protection if it faces demolition, preservation officials say.

Nickodell’s owners and Paramount’s spokesman insist the studio is not forcing the restaurant out, although Paramount reportedly was not offering a lease beyond 1998. Without owning the property, Sorich and his partner were reluctant to spend $100,000 on renovations they say the restaurant needs. Its brownish carpets, for example, show 30 years of wear in the long, narrow dining room, and the cracked mirror behind its 35-foot-long bar is patched with tape.

Amid Nickodell’s flocked wallpaper and seascape paintings, visitors can easily conjure up days when Ball and Desi Arnaz were regulars, when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton once huddled there, when the casts and crews of “Bonanza” and “Mod Squad” held court.

The menu hasn’t changed much either except for prices since 1936. That was when Nick Slavich bought what had been the Melrose Grotto, a movie hangout that he expanded and later renamed after himself and his wife. (Slavich sold the business in the 1950s, but his family held the property until the 1990 sale to Paramount.)

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Some regulars quietly concede that the cooking is nothing special, but they adore being able to choose braised sweetbreads in mushroom sauce, ($10.75 with a complete dinner) or liver steak ($11.20 on the dinner) or filet mignon ($17.50.) The menus still lists 15 different bourbon whiskeys, 12 kinds of Scotch, and 14 “imported cordials” like Creme de Cassis ($3.50.) Five years ago, Los Angeles Times food writers placed Nickodell in what they dubbed “the Boy Food Hall of Fame” for its devotion to red meat.

Mary Jammal, a Nickodell waitress for 15 years, reported a recent upsurge in business from people nostalgic for one last meal. But not enough to reverse the decision to shut the doors. “It’s really sad,” she said in between delivering hot corned beef sandwiches. “We just don’t get the people in here anymore.”


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