Open late for dinner

Special to The Times

In typical Friday night dinner party fashion, Nathan Turner's guests are running late. Three of them are still navigating their way from the airport, and two more have called to confirm the address. But the host isn't the slightest bit fazed. Everything else is running right on schedule. Carrots and parsnips have been soaking in water since 10 a.m., a Port wine reduction has been simmering away since lunch, and the table was set sometime midafternoon, complete with kale, artichoke and gourd centerpiece.

The West Hollywood antiques seller has been able to do everything during work hours because the venue is his very own eponymous shop on Almont Street, next door to the Swedish antiques store Lief and a couple of doors away from the showroom of the forever-in-demand designer Waldo Fernandez.

So, what happened to the days when shop owners could throw a cocktail party from 6 to 8 with a few bottles of decent wine and a cheese platter? They're not exactly over, but a worldly breed of multi-tasking furniture dealers has raised in-store entertaining to a sophisticated new level, refining the whole concept by borrowing from, and expanding on, a more European approach.

"Where I grew up, there was always a piece of cheese and red wine on the table in antiques stores," says Frederic Lazare, who is from Cahors in southwest France and is owner of the French antiques store Bourgeois Boheme on La Brea Avenue.

From cozy antiques shops to state-of-the-art kitchen showrooms, Los Angeles home stores have become the latest places for private dinner parties, given by owners who are as well versed in Biedermeier as they are in beurre blanc. The concept is Business 101: to keep clients in your environment as long as possible. And what better way than with a home-cooked meal served in the most luxuriant of settings, where you're surrounded by centuries of fine furnishings?

The Los Angeles design world is as much a connections-driven machine as Hollywood, and getting A-list designers to frequent your shop requires some clever moves. From the point of view of future returns, $600 spent at Bristol Farms is a modest outlay if a designer asks you to be on the lookout for hand-painted majolica tiles on your next buying trip to Italy or Regency chairs with lion's paw feet in England.

As guests arrive, Turner fills champagne glasses resting on an 18th century Italian painted table and moves among conversation clusters, making introductions when needed even though everyone, if not already friends, is only one or two degrees of separation from one another in the fashionable design arena. Industry stars Kathryn Ireland, Joe Nye, Kim Alexandriuk and Molly Isaksen are regulars at his soirees. Tonight, a carefully tailored mix of interior decorators, architects, furniture shop owners, magazine editors and even a Hollywood celebrity mingle about the 3,000-square-foot sisal-floored space, where mostly Italian antiques are cast in a golden votive-candle glow.

Aside from price tags dangling from chairs and armoires, English iron urns and Genovese crystal chandeliers, there's little to distinguish the shop from a classically appointed home. Including the presence of the Burberry-collared lab Daisy, who hovers around the tiny kitchen where her owner installed a gas range, full-size refrigerator and appliances from home.

"It's small, but I can crank stuff out in it," says Turner, plating the first course, a roasted beet, fennel and orange salad.

Guests sit boy-boy-girl at an 18th century Spanish rectory table with an $18,000 price tag tied to one of its legs. The conversation -- jumping about in English, Spanish and Italian -- shifts from showcase houses to L.A. architecture to real estate values to ruminations on "Legally Blonde," directed by a guest, Robert Luketic. While Mary McDonald, one of L.A.'s most glamorous decorators, talks with Turner about canning tomatoes in her kitchen, Veranda magazine editor-at-large Miguel Flores-Vianna takes it upon himself to keep wine glasses filled. All the while, Turner brings out course after course: beef tenderloin, berry trifle with custard, blue cheese drizzled with honey.

"There wouldn't be time to make this kind of meal at home after a day at work," Turner says. "That's the nice thing about doing it here. Between clients, I'll prep the parsley, take a call, then slice the potatoes. I get to incorporate it into my workday."

From the start, when Lazare founded Bourgeois Boheme last year, he and his partners, with Dale Skorcz and Tim Norr, always offered wine to local design luminaries like Thomas Beeton who came into the shop. Before long, the partners -- who sell a mix of antiques with contemporary French pieces and artwork -- began hosting intimate dinners in the back of the shop, on a 19th century marble-topped bistro table that seats up to 10. Using pressed linen napkins and an exclusive line of French glass tableware carried at the shop, they now give parties twice a month.

Next door at the Italian antiques store Eccola, guests settle into elegant club chairs with their glasses of wine while owner Maurizio Almanza blends pesto for a group of six that includes interior designer Amy Devault, Lucas Schelkens of the design, art and antiques store Lucas LA, and Fabio Micucci, who has a to-the-trade showroom of contemporary Venetian glass in Pacific Design Center. Devault wanders toward an 1850s console with inlaid bronze that "would be perfect for a project," she says, but Almanza's wife and business partner, Kathleen R. White, dismisses any shop talk with a wave of the hand and announces that it's time to eat.

Almanza emerges from the kitchen with artichoke ravioli and sauteed red and yellow peppers, followed by platters of Parma ham and Burrata mozzarella that he picked up in Van Nuys at 6 that morning.

The couple met in Rome in the late '90s, then three years ago decided to move to the states and sell European antiques out of a Culver City warehouse.

"I now have three of everything," says Almanza of his home, warehouse and shop kitchens.

"The first thing we did in that warehouse was to install an industrial kitchen," says White. "Every time a container arrived from Italy, we'd have a lunch for designers so they'd be the first to see."

Earlier this year, they opened their La Brea Avenue storefront and the entertaining migrated with them, expanding into elaborate dinners.

Such efforts may be well worth it. In high-end stores like Eccola, where a 17th century ceramic olive jar carries a $6,000 price tag, it's the designers -- not casual shoppers or even flush homeowners -- who are the lifeblood. And in-store dinner parties are a unique way to establish professional intimacy with the kind of people who decorate several large-scale projects each year.

"Dinners are the first step of a relationship," says Lazare. "There's no pressure because it's a public space, so they feel comfortable. It's very personal and very anonymous at the same time."

In-store soirees also bring the merchandise to life. Seeing an 18th century walnut rectory table during a harried shopping trip is one thing; sitting down to it for a three-hour, four-course dinner is another.

"I can go into a shop five times and never see that one piece that's the most precious," says Devault, who is both a frequent client and dinner guest at Eccola. "Here, I sit down and I really see everything they have. You're always going to go back to the place where they make you feel at home."

Keeping it relaxed is just what Gary Gibson does at his Beverly Boulevard design studio. The L.A.-based interior designer set up an atelier on one of the trendiest stretches of the street, then started using it as a satellite dining room. Clients, vendors, other designers and friends come for small dinner parties, usually catered by neighboring Grace restaurant.

"Doing it in-store totally changes the dynamics," says Gibson. Someone on the sofa with down pillows is going to let his or her guard down much more than in a restaurant. And even though that down sofa and toile slipper chair are of Gibson's own design, he says that "the bottom line is that it's fun."

But do pesto-smeared lamb chops really move four- and five-digit-priced inventory?

Film director Luketic, a frequent guest at Turner's, fell in love with a pair of early 19th century Italian engravings, and the next day he put them on hold because he could "imagine how they would sit in my house." Three months later he still hasn't purchased them, although he fell in love with them all over again at a recent dinner party. But Turner isn't bothered about the time lag.

"It's just good to break bread with clients," says Turner. "Americans get so caught up with business, business, business. It doesn't have to be so hard-core with your clients."

His attitude reflects that of all of the shop owners: An enduring relationship with a client is more important than an immediate sale.

Building trust is probably the single most important byproduct of in-store gatherings. "Objects take on the character of the people selling them," says interior designer David Desmond, enjoying a glass of champagne and smoked salmon canapes at Bourgeois Boheme. Desmond has been invited to many of Lazare and Skorcz's parties, and he's become a regular client.

"I like them and trust their pieces, so I make a special effort to use them in my projects," says Desmond. "I feel connected to them. There aren't that many dollars to go around right now, so shop owners need to make a personal connection with people who can buy things from them."

For Chris Tosdevin, president of the Los Angeles bulthaup showroom, building confidence is just as critical. Selling the German-designed kitchens, which go from about $30,000 to $100,000, requires serious savvy, especially since more than half his business is referral.

About two years ago, Tosdevin began organizing dinner parties at the Robertson Boulevard showroom. Architects and design-minded homeowners, both existing clients and prospective ones, are invited to the sleek kitchen environment about once a month to dine on food prepared by a local chef using bulthaup equipment.

"When I tell a customer about a European oven where you can make cookies and salmon in the same oven at the same time, you have to demonstrate it to finally convince them," says Tosdevin. The solution, then, is to gather clients around an ergonomically designed granite table, make them a great dinner, and prove the product.

As for the liabilities of in-store dinner parties, they aren't much different from the home version. Judiciousness is still required when composing a guest list: Invite two competing decorating divas to the same dinner party and you could lose both as clients. And then there's the issue of merchandise. During one of Turner's parties, a guest spilled red wine on an upholstered Swedish side chair. With the aplomb of a seasoned host, Turner calmly applied salt to the stain and poured another glass of wine.

"These parties show people not to be afraid of antiques. Just because it's 200 years old doesn't mean you can't use it," says Turner -- who is planning to have his entire family over to the shop for Thanksgiving dinner.

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