How sweet it is

Special to The Times

As you laze about in an Italian leather booth, fondling a black leather tablecloth, the soothing sounds of French crooner Serge Gainesbourg lure you into a sweet stupor. The lighting is tweaked to amber perfection, making everyone in the black-hot room look camera friendly.

It’s Dolce on a Wednesday night, and even though you’ve been there for hours, you can’t muster the strength to leave. And why would you? The sharp new restaurant and bar on Melrose Avenue is the perfect package -- rife with celebrities and civilians, vino and Dino, and weensy plates of food so yummy you’d swear the gnocchi is winking at you.

Ever since its April 24 opening, Dolce’s been a hit -- in part because owner Lonnie Moore knows a thing or two about the art of the deal. When the former television executive decided to turn his talents to nightclubbing, he dived in with gusto.


Moore, a New York expatriate, spent two years developing Belly, a sweet tapas bar on Santa Monica Boulelvard that opened in 2001 and became a staple of L.A. nightlife, adding the word tapas -- Spanish for appetizer -- into our lexicon. With partner Mike “Boogie” Malin, an actor who rode 15 minutes of fame on “Big Brother 2,” they settled in as two of young Hollywood’s most likable players.

With the debut of their bar and restaurant, they’ve also proved to be two of Hollywood smartest players. For Dolce, Moore and Malin teamed up with Gaucho Grill owner Adolfo Suaya, who had the lease on the location -- the former spot of Le Chardonnay -- and invited them to create something.

One of the smartest things its owners did was find investors among the young Hollywood jetset. Dolce’s backers include Ashton Kutcher -- uh, you might have heard of him -- as well as Danny Masterson and Wilmer Valderrama -- all from “That ‘70s Show.” Comedian Jamie Kennedy and actor Adam Rodriguez from “C.S.I. Miami” also are involved.

Most any night, you’ll find the actors on the back patio, checking out the hotties and naughty starlets. But unlike many celeb-studded restaurants, which become so exclusive they burn out quicker than you can say, “Gotta match?,” at Dolce all you need is a reservation.

The sexy ristorante and enoteca -- Italiano for house of wine -- stimulates the senses. In the background, diners hear the timeless sounds of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Mario Lanza. The leather tablecloths add just the right blend of over-the-top luxury. Two thousand bottles of wines are stacked in a see-through cooler beside a bar that spews flames all evening.

Like Belly, which gives nightclubbers a genie-in-a-bottle feel compliments of plush pillows and sexy lighting, Dolce offers such creature comforts as private indoor and outdoor dining areas, enclosed with red velvet drapes for a bit of extra sizzle. The entrance offers a sensory sensation with Lyncresta wallpaper, creating the illusion of bottle caps set in metal. An over-the-top black walnut cross separates the main dining room from the outdoor area.

The look is the work of Dodd Mitchell, the interior designer behind the upcoming Hyatt bar Chi, and such happening spots as Katana, Linq and Sushi Roku.

Dolce, which plays off Belly’s tapas theme by offering appetizer-sized portions of such delectables as risotto, gnocchi and prosciutto, hit a spark with wine lovers. Moore invited famed wine expert Alessandro Sbrendola to head up the enoteca. Sbrendola spent the last seven years building a formidable reputation at Valentino’s in Santa Monica, where he created a cellar offering 130,000 bottles of vino. And at Dolce, non-drinkers may revel in the fact it offers a variety of non-alcoholic wines.

We recommend checking out Dolce during the week, when the scene is more laid back. By the time the weekend rolls around, you might find yourself caught behind an endless stream of Escalades. To head looky-loos and paparazzi off at the pass, Dolce hired famed Hollywood doorman Steven Harlow (Viper Room) to lasso the velvet rope.

But this is only making Dolce more desirable. Such celebrities as Rod Stewart, P. Diddy, Geraldo Rivera and Larry Flynt all recently have noshed there. And of course, there’s the periodic Demi Moore-Kutcher sighting.

And as the old Hollywood saying goes, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. But Dolce’s success can be credited to the who and the what.


Dolce, Enoteca e Ristorante

Where: 8284 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles

When: Daily, 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; dinner served till midnight. Reservations required.

Cost: No cover; 21 and older; valet parking available

Info: (323) 852-7174.