Heart of Palm

Gigi Delmaestro has watched more than 200 L.A. restaurants come and go in the 23 years he has stood at the door of the semi-legendary Palm Restaurant in West Hollywood. The general manager/maitre d' has become such a fixture at the resurgently trendy eatery that his own first course, the "Gigi Salad," a combination of bacon, shrimp, string beans, hard-boiled eggs and avocado, is offered on the menu. Regular customers--the older Beverly Hills set and younger Industry types alike--bring him elaborately wrapped birthday presents each April. "Every day you come into a place like this," Delmaestro says, "it's like coming to play, not to work."

Evidently. The restaurant, with its $30 steaks, is a throwback to the days when no one in America knew the surgeon general's name and cows ran scared in the pastures. Although a steady stream of Hollywood clientele both famous and infamous fills its booths, Delmaestro is loath to tell tales of his trade. "In this business, you really can't say too much about it," he says, the soul of discretion. "Everything's lawsuits and actions. 'I'm suing! I'm suing!' But, you know, you can read between the lines."

Gigi (a cousin couldn't pronounce his real name, Luigi) came to the States from his native Italy in 1950, at the age of 14. In residence at the Palm from Day One, he modestly attributes his maitre d' skills to possessing a "great sense of people. I kind of sense when they come in how they're gonna react, and basically I can almost sense what they're going to eat or drink. What makes me better than anybody else? I'm seasoned. I've been doing this for a long, long time."

In an age of velvet ropes and Sky Bar attitude, one might gather the consummate, gracious maitre d' is a dying breed. "The younger guys in hip places, they come and go. We're here to stay. It's not a dying breed," Delmaestro says. "I mean, the way I operate? Yes. I probably am one of the last Mohicans."

Not that he'd ever admit it, but one can see a certain sadness in his eyes when Delmaestro talks about those he's trained who've used the Palm as a steppingstone to move on, chasing $50 more a week in lieu of dedication to a beloved clientele. "I hope they learned off of me, and I hope they carry on my tradition. See, what they have to remember is everybody who walks through the front door's a movie star, whether they are or whether they aren't.

"Some of them, y'know, just need a little more attention than others."

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