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Perino’s Founder Aimed for Stars, Culinary Excellence

Times Staff Writer

Yes, there have been other high-glamour, high-priced restaurants -- Chasen’s, Scandia, Romanoff’s -- places favored by presidents and film stars. But the granddaddy of them all was a restaurant founded during the Depression by an Italian immigrant who believed that Los Angeles had an appetite for fine food in elegant surroundings.

Only a dreamer would have opened a restaurant that charged $1.25 for a dinner at a time when Angelenos could eat a full and hearty meal for 5 or 10 cents.

The dreamer’s name was Alexander Perino, and his namesake restaurant was Los Angeles’ first and foremost icon of culinary excellence, setting the standard for more than 50 years.

Perino referred to his establishment -- originally in the 3900 block of Wilshire Boulevard -- as The Place, and for well-heeled Angelenos, it was. Some diners wore tuxedoes and carried engraved cigarette cases. Women made entrances wearing evening gowns, diamonds and furs. Waiters knew what customers wanted before they knew themselves. Unlike lesser establishments, Perino’s waiters were virtually invisible and never hovered for a tip.

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Haute cuisine and expensive wines made Perino’s the first Los Angeles restaurant praised by New York critics. It survived wartime food rationing and chic competitors following its lead.

Chasen’s would have its famous chili, Scandia its gravlax, the Brown Derby its Cobb salad and grapefruit cake. Perino’s drew diners with its steak Diane, chicken quenelles and pumpernickel cheese toast served by a waiter wearing white gloves.

Movie fans loitered outside Perino’s, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Hollywood star after lunch or a late-night tipple. Charlie Chaplin always had time for panhandlers, handing out $5 and $10 bills. Frank Sinatra would play a tune on the Steinway in the bar, and Cole Porter wrote a song on a menu.

After the pigtailed child actress Margaret O’Brien began celebrating her birthdays there, the restaurant named a drink after her -- it was similar to a Shirley Temple. Opera bass Ezio Pinza declared Perino’s gnocchi to be better than any he ate in Italy.

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Mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel had a private booth. Regular and occasional guests included Eleanor Roosevelt, President Nixon, Sid Grauman, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Martin, Howard Hughes, novelist James M. Cain and Adm. Chester Nimitz.

Diners had such deep pockets that Dorothy “Buff” Chandler would seek donations from them, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1950s to help build the Music Center.

Perino’s influence on Los Angeles began in 1932, seven years after he came to town. As a restaurateur, his motto was simple: “Food, service, cleanliness and no cheating.” So was his credo: “Only the best.”

He considered each dish a work of art. “A salad,” he once said, “should be like a beautiful woman in a plain dress” -- nothing to distract from the dish itself.

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A restaurant writer once remarked that Perino looked like an Italian count, with his white hair and courtly manners. “Like an Italian prince,” Perino corrected him.

But the suave, impeccably dressed Perino, who greeted his regular customers with flawless English and a stately bow, began life under modest circumstances. He was born in 1895, the youngest of a dozen children in Italy’s Piedmonte region. His father was a winemaker -- and a socialist.

In fact, “a good socialist,” Perino said in a 1969 Los Angeles Times interview. “He saw what was wrong and tried to help. He loaned villagers money. If he didn’t have it, he sold a cow or a barrel of wine and got it.”

Young Perino dropped out of school after the third grade to become a blacksmith. But his parents instead apprenticed him to a pastry chef in San Remo on the Italian Riviera, where he developed a passion for music. When he learned that one diner was performing in “La Boheme,” he traded her a plate of chocolate eclairs for a ticket. When Perino heard a chef singing, he bribed him with a pack of cigarettes to teach him arias.

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Perino was in his early teens when his father died. Two years later, so did his mother. Orphaned at 15, Perino headed for New York, finding refuge with a family his father had helped.

He worked as a pot-scrubber and busboy, saving every penny to attend the opera. “Whenever Caruso sang, I quit my job” -- and promptly found another, he said in the 1969 interview.

A brief romance with a girl named Martha ended when he took her to hear Caruso: She fell asleep.

He worked his way across the continent, signing on at a variety of hotels. He served ice cream to Gen. John Pershing; beef with onion juice and butter to President Harding; guinea hen and sweet potatoes to President Taft.

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Guests “tipped in gold” at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, he said, but he headed for Los Angeles to find his real fortune.

In 1925, he became a waiter at Los Angeles’ new Biltmore Hotel -- but was fired for dropping a tray of tea and crumpets. No matter; he soon became headwaiter at the posh Victor Hugo’s restaurant. After four years, he decided he’d learned enough to open his own business.

“I looked at Victor Hugo’s and said, ‘If this is good, I can do better,’ ” he said.

Perino handed over his car’s pink slip to a Chicago friend in return for a $2,000 loan, then boldly opened the most expensive restaurant in town.

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Two days after its opening, Attilio Balzano walked in and said he was a good cook. “How good?” Perino asked.

“Try me,” Balzano said.

Perino did; Balzano stayed for 37 years.

“We fought like cats and dogs, but he is a great man,” Perino said in the 1969 interview.

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The restaurant quickly prospered. Soon Ronald Coleman and Dolores del Rio could be found in the kitchen looking over Balzano and Perino’s shoulders, learning new recipes.

In 1950, Perino closed the old restaurant and opened an even bigger and grander Perino’s two blocks west. It featured a dramatic black-and-white marble entry, an oval dining room and what architect Paul Williams described as New Orleans architecture with “a California flair.”

In 1953, Midwest mob boss Anthony “Big Tuna” Accardo and L.A. mob bigwig Jack Dragna were among several gangsters who attended a convention of sorts at Perino’s.

But police had followed the out-of-towners from the airport. The Mafiosi had just settled down to eat when they heard that the cops were harassing the men they’d posted outside. So they moved the meeting elsewhere. No one is sure if they finished their food first -- but the smart money says they did.

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“After that,” said Eddie Cress, a native Angeleno who lived nearby, “Perino’s had an aura of mystique for a while.”

Perino liked to tell the story about the customer who stumbled over a hatrack. It fell and hit another diner, who pulled a gun. Perino knocked the weapon out of his hand and told a waiter to hide it.

“Where did you put the gun?” Perino asked later.

“In the soup,” the waiter replied.

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In 1954, a fire destroyed everything except Perino’s outside walls. Perino rebuilt, this time with a pink accent. The rooms sparkled in sea green, pink and coral, with “clay-beige” carpet bordered in black.

Glittering crystal chandeliers dripped from the ceiling, and costly French oil paintings hung on the walls. The silver shone -- particularly the new $1,800 solid silver serving cart -- and reflected the pink linen-covered tables, each bearing a single pink rose.

Interior decorator Anthony Longinotti said the warm glow of the colors “makes everybody look radiant.”

Perino was a perfectionist, conscious of every detail. He insisted that napkins be made of Irish linen so guests wouldn’t get lint on their clothes. He bought vegetables from a Japanese farmer on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, fish and anchovies from a Scandinavian fisherman. He imported Ethiopian coffee and Russian caviar. Tomatoes were never put on ice because they would lose their flavor, and garlic never touched his creations.

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“I never served anything in my restaurant I didn’t want to eat myself,” he said. “The secret of good food is simply quality; there is no substitute.”

Speaking of secrets, the trick to Perino’s fabled martini was that it combined French vermouth with English gin.

By 1969, when Perino was in his 70s, food costs were skyrocketing, good help was scarce, and his clientele had gravitated from debonair movie stars in formal attire to young stars with long hair and dirty jeans. And land was worth more than legend; Perino sold his restaurant.

The new owners didn’t have Perino’s staying power. By 1983 it was struggling, and in 1985 the corporation filed for bankruptcy. A 1986 revival failed, and the elegant doors were padlocked.

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For years, however, it has been available for special events and filming. Scenes from several movies portraying mobsters or drug lords were filmed at Perino’s. Curiously, they were films about Perino’s former clients, such as “Bugsy,” starring Warren Beatty, in 1991, and “Chaplin,” starring Robert Downey Jr., in 1992.

But next month, the smoked-salmon-colored landmark has a date with the wrecking ball. A 47-unit luxury apartment complex called Perino’s Apartments will replace it.

Developers say they will incorporate some of Perino’s original fittings into the design, including the porte-cochere and the sign that was familiar to generations of Angelenos. Even if passing drivers couldn’t afford to eat there, they recognized the landmark when they reached the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Norton Avenue.


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