IT'S a typical Friday night at Renee's Courtyard Cafe, and the bar-restaurant is packed with young singles buzzing like a Lavalife commercial. Yet as soon as she walks in, an older lady, barely visible at 4 feet 10, commands all the attention.
"That's her," one patron whispers to another. "That's Renee!"
Instantly recognizable to the Westsiders who haunt her namesake, Renee Forrest is more than just a local proprietor; she's a cause celebre.
"We had some [building code] problems with the city eight, 10 years ago; they almost shut us down," Forrest says in a New York accent not even a quarter-century on Wilshire Boulevard could dent. "But I must have had 600 customers write letters saying, 'Keep Renee's open, it's great!' And when I went to the City Council, they all said, 'Oh, we know you! We love your place!' "
The Santa Monica council members wisely decided to give Renee's a pass for reasons as obvious today as they were then.
Situated in a ramshackle boardinghouse that predates the town's seven decades of building records, and run by the same unusual woman for 26 consecutive years, Renee's Courtyard Cafe is a stunningly unique venue. Entering through an inconspicuous portico, visitors walk by an initial shabby-chic bar, through a grand hallway festooned with belle epoque murals and into a cozy Spanish villa-style courtyard. From this central core, guests can circulate among four more distinct rooms: an Art Deco-themed bar, an English pub-type room, a library-style dining area bedecked with children's dolls and a Mexican Riviera-like back patio.
The menu -- heavy on panini, salads, pizzas and meaty Mediterranean entrees -- is reasonably priced, as are the drinks, and the doorman never collects a cover, but it's Renee's eclectic and earthy charm that ensnares locals and tourists alike.
Business consultants would be aghast to learn how it all came together. A novice when she took out a lease on a single unit with no kitchen to open a restaurant, Forrest paid her bills by entertaining diners with her comedic skills at handwriting analysis. Managing to turn a small profit after only minor renovations, she gradually expanded the cafe and added the bars.
As for the idiosyncratic look, Forrest says: "This whole place is pretty much decorated from yard sales and thrift shops."
Whatever the story of the venue, the magic inside is undeniable. "I've had tons of people who meet here and get married," Forrest says. "In fact, I've been invited to four or five of their weddings."
Liam Gowing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Renee's Courtyard Cafe & Bar
Where: 522 Wilshire Blvd.,
When: 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
Price: Sandwiches, $8 to $10; salads, $6 to $13; pizzas, $6.50 to $7.50; entrees, $13 to $19; draft and bottled beer, $5 to $6; wine by the glass, $7; well drinks, $7; cocktails, $7 to $10.
Info: (310) 451-9341