The restaurant scene in the San Fernando Valley is nothing if not fluid, but in the midst of change you find places of wondrous stillness--successful places that put no premium on the novel.
Andre Remillon founded the La Frite restaurants in Woodland Hills and Sherman Oaks nearly a quarter century ago, and his regular customers find virtue in the constancy of his offerings.
"Our main strength really is that we don't change very much," said Justin French, general manager. "We do the rack of lamb and the osso bucco just like we always did. Some of our entrees have been on the menu for 15, 18 years, and I have customers about my own age--35--who first came here on prom night in high school, and now come with two kids."
French took over as general manager the week of the Northridge earthquake--a baptism by fire.
"I learned how to manage a restaurant by learning to collect money for the tab in the dark," French said, laughing at the memory. "Every time there was an aftershock, we just told everybody to hold onto their plates because the big one had already come and gone.
"One customer that week got angry when we ran out of broccoli. I said to her, 'Ma'am, what did your kitchen look like after the earthquake?' She said, 'I don't have a kitchen because of the earthquake.' I said, 'Then I think you can understand why we can't get everything we want for our customers. How about some green beans?'
"She understood right away."
La Frite, located at 22616 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 225-1331, and at 15013 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 990-1791, will celebrate the beginning of the second quarter century of its existence with a party in May.
Patrons of the Bistro Garden restaurant in Studio City may now retire to the bar for a cigar and a snifter of brandy after dinner--and you don't have to like Rush Limbaugh, a big cigar fan, to consider the idea a civilized thing to do.
The cigars range in price from $10 to $13, which denotes a very good quality. Brands include an H. Upman rolled in Honduras, the Havana Gold from the Dominican Republic, and the Centennial V from Honduras.
And if brandy doesn't settle your stomach after dinner, the bar offers a variety of single-malt scotches, ports and grappas. Some patrons like a martini after dinner.
What's more, the layout of the bar and restaurant is such that the aroma of cigars doesn't make its way from the bar into the dining areas--though it is true that following a special cigar event in November, executive chef Harry Klibingat had to open all the windows in the dining areas and chase away the cigar smell with a mess of pungent roasted garlic.
Christopher and Caroline Niklas, brother and sister, operate the Bistro Garden as well as BG TO GO, a takeout/sidewalk cafe next door. Greg Pappas is general manager. The restaurant is located at 12950 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 501-0202.
Loretta and Keisuke Yokoyama have expanded the seating at Musashi Restaurant in Northridge--for the fourth time since they opened 15 years ago.
"We were half this size back then," Loretta Yokoyama says. "We had maybe room for 80 then, and we can seat about 160 now. We have a full sushi bar and hibachi tables, where the chefs cook a full Japanese menu for the customer."
The restaurant draws local business people for lunch, families for dinner.
Loretta Yokoyama and her husband started out with a small coffee shop in the mid-Wilshire district, from about 1976 to '79, she says.
"But we had always lived in the Valley; we grew up out here. So when we had the chance, we opened this restaurant to be close to home."
After her long tenure as a restaurateur, Yokoyama says it's important not to grow weary of the job. "You can't get tired of it," she says. "I come in at 8:30 a.m. and work until 6 or 7 in the evening. Keisuke comes in at 10 and he closes the place down.
"How do we get along?" she says with a laugh. "We fight every day. That's how we get our anxieties out. We just do the same things for our customers every day. We like people, and we plan to stay here for a long time--maybe long enough to expand once or twice more."
The restaurant is open seven days a week but serves only dinner on Saturdays and Sundays. It is located at 9046 Tampa Ave., Northridge, (818) 701-7041.
John E. "Smokin' Johnnie" Ferris cut his teeth in the movie business, but he always ate, slept and drank the blues--and dreamed of opening a restaurant where people could hear the real thing.
So he did. After nearly two decades as president and chief executive officer of Ellis Mercantile, the big supplier of movie props to Hollywood, Ferris opened Smokin' Johnnie's in Studio City a year ago.
Diners hear the blues every night of the week, but Ferris prides himself as much on his barbecue as he does on his music. Darrel Foye, a chef for more than 40 years, holds forth in the kitchen.
The restaurant serves every kind of barbecue you can think of--ribs, brisket, chicken, whatever--at prices generally shy of $15. Everything is homemade, from the corn bread to the peach cobbler.
The restaurant celebrated its first anniversary earlier this month with blues guitarist Eric Sardinas, who commands a big and loyal following.
"Each time he plays here, the phone rings off the hook and you just can't get in," says Bobby Cottonwood, the club's general manager and himself a country singer.
"We won't have him back in December, but I know he's going to be here again in January."
The three-piece blues band Hambone headlines the restaurant's New Year's Eve party Dec. 31. As usual, there will be no cover charge.
Smokin' Johnnie's is located at 11720 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 760-6631.
Juan Hovey writes about the restaurant scene in the San Fernando Valley and outlying points. He may be reached at (805) 492-7909 or fax (805) 492-5139 or via e-mail at 103254,email@example.com