Restaurant History : A Lunch at Robaire's

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On special occasions, my family ate at Robaire's on La Brea.

For us, dining out was a luxury, and while we ate dinner once a week at a family restaurant in Altadena and often started camping trips with coffee-shop eggs, we followed a strict restaurant protocol. No milk for the kids (there was plenty of milk at home), no cocktails for the adults (you could buy a whole bottle of Scotch for the price of two drinks), no meat with breakfasts (an entire pound of bacon cost as much as those three inferior slices), etc.

At Robaire's, I would always scan the menu and find the one or two priciest items and say with great, resolute primness: "I believe I will have the Chateaubriand."

"Ho ho ho," My parents would say. "Very funny, Michelle."

I'd scan the menu again, and this time I'd find the three least expensive items and chose from among them.

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When I was 12 or so, I settled on a favorite item, which had two virtues: Not only was it inexpensive, it made the waiter stop and look at me with interest. Clearly, not many adolescent girls ordered chicken liver omelets. "Excellent choice," he'd murmur.

And it was an excellent choice: a plump envelope of softly cooked yellow egg full of wine-dark sauce and earthy, braised livers. I remember several specific meals at Robaire's--I ate rack of lamb there before my high school prom--but one lunch in particular stands out: It was a meal that changed our family.

My sister did not date much in high school. She played the violin and taught the violin and studied in her room. After graduation, she began studying Japanese at a junior college so she could go to Japan and study violin and pedagogy with Shinichi Suzuki. Although she was gifted in languages, Japanese was so difficult that she needed help. She found the handsomest Japanese man in the college library and asked him to be her tutor.

Her new tutor, it turned out, needed a tutor himself. He had been born and raised in Japan and had recently spent seven years in France. He spoke Japanese and French fluently, but he had been in America for only two months and his English was rudimentary.

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My sister was still living at home at the time, and I was a senior in high school. As the months passed, my parents and I heard more and more about the tutor. Finally, my sister announced they were officially dating. My parents asked to meet him.

Arrangements were made. We were to pick him up, go to a Saturday morning recital, and then out to lunch--at Robaire's.

Twenty-nine years old, the famous tutor was indeed handsome and cheerful and quite fond of my sister.

For some reason, my mother did not come along that day. After the recital, my father, my sister, her tutor and I went to Robaire's. Once we sat down, my father turned to our guest. "Please," he said. "Have anything you want."

I checked the menu for the most expensive items, but did not make my usual threat: too shy, I think, on the new and odd occasion of meeting the man my sister loved. A man who, incidentally, ordered a cocktail first thing.

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When the waiter returned to take our order, I went first: chicken liver omelet. My sister, frowning at the menu, wanted more time.

The tutor then spoke to the waiter at length in French. He asked many questions. Sitting next to him, I watched as his finger strayed through the menu, pausing here in the list of appetizers, there in the salads, and there again among the entrees. The waiter scribbled away. My father ordered a chicken dish. My sister ordered only a dinner salad. "I'm not hungry," she said.

The tutor offered us tastes of his food. Pate. A thick soup. Red wine. Frog legs. I was torn--at once fascinated and mortified to see items from long-forbidden areas of the menu materialize at the table.

Would the courses never stop coming?

When the bill arrived, the tutor reached for it, but his was not an aggressive gesture. "No, no, no, I insist," my father said--and while his was not a heartfelt protest, that was that.

My father duly reported these events to my mother.

The arguing lasted for hours that night. My father and mother were united: The tutor was too old. He was inconsiderate. A freeloader, a mooch. At the very least, a big spender. Why, his meal alone had cost more than all three of ours put together.

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Every now and then, my sister's voice would rise above the fray in a wail: "But you told him to order anything he wanted!" and, "He tried to pay. Dad wouldn't let him!"

All of which is to say that my parents gave my sister no choice in the matter concerning this man. She didn't do it right away, but eventually, inevitably, she married him.

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