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ALL ABOUT FOOD: From valet to chic restaurateur

What do these people have in common: Paul Newman, Rita Hayworth, Princess Margaret, Robert Redford, Abigail Van Buren, Lionel Ritchie, Mae West, Jackie Onassis, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan and Peggy Lee? This is just a short list of famous clients at Le Restaurant, where Mark DePalma (of Mark’s in Laguna), consummate restaurateur, began his career. In case you don’t remember or weren’t part of Frankie’s inner circle, Le Restaurant was “The Place" to see and be seen in ‘70s Hollywood (and to boot, the food was terrific!).

Mark, a real street kid, whose father had abandoned his family and whose mother was always working to raise her seven children, learned his survival skills as a youngster.

He began his career in the restaurant business at the tender age of 15 parking cars at this happening establishment. Even then he was a great schmoozer, talking his way into a job for which he was under age. The biggest names in Hollywood drove into that parking lot but he recognized very few in those early days, being way too young to remember Mae West or Rita Hayworth.

Bruce Vanderhof, the owner of Le Restaurant, was just one of many people who have been charmed by Mark. He took him under his wing even though the very handsome Mark was a naughty boy, playing practical jokes and always getting into trouble. Bruce brought him indoors to keep an eye on him and started Mark as a busboy. He was promoted to dishwasher and later began working in the kitchen learning to cook.

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One evening, this merry prankster noticed that Bruce was not at the maître d’ station and so he took off his apron and grabbed one of the complimentary jackets that were given to guests in shirt sleeves who came to this fancy eatery. He put it on and stood at the door welcoming guests with great style and aplomb, not realizing that Bruce was watching him from a seat at the bar. In fact, Bruce, although mightily ticked off, was quite impressed with Mark’s performance and asked him if he seriously wanted to learn the business. Mark was eager for the opportunity and eventually became assistant maître d’. He learned to treat everyone as if they were being invited into his home while his charisma and good looks made him very popular at the job.

These were wild and heady days for this roguish young man with friends like Lionel Ritchie and Peggy Lee "” starlets and stars, pool parties, and late, late nights.

He left Le Restaurant to take a job at Pip’s nightclub because the money was just too good. One of the members of the board of directors of Pip’s was Eugene Klein, owner of racehorses and the San Diego Chargers, yet another victim of Mark’s charm. He invited Mark to join his entourage, including Michael Douglas and one of the Gettys, to fly in his private plane to Aquaduct in New York for the races. On the way, Klein stopped in Texas to buy a helicopter. They stayed in fancy hotels, went clubbing (always walking straight past the rope ahead of the waiting throng) and saw Klein’s four horses come in winners. This was Mark’s first trip to the Big Apple, a hard act to follow.

At Pip’s in the first year, he made enough money in tips to open his own restaurant at the age of 22. While planning the first Mark’s on La Cienega, he worked at his old job as manager of Le Restaurant. Bruce, who was always supportive, encouraged him in this new endeavor, which became a huge success.

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Stopped short in his rise to renown by a terrible car accident, Mark spent 2 1/2 months in the hospital and was told he would never walk again. He underwent five different operations and could not work in his restaurant for more than one hour a day. He managed the place by phone but eventually had to sell it.

He ignored doctors’ orders to rest. At the urging of his brother Danny, who drove him to the pool daily, he swam for hours, leading to recovery that stunned his physicians.

He took a job as manager of Bistro Gardens but was unhappy working for other people and dreamed of re-opening a restaurant with his name on it.

In the early ‘90s, he married his wife, Melinda, and took a honeymoon in Laguna at the Surf and Sand. It struck him that the strip of Coast Highway around Thalia Street was midway between the gay neighborhood to the south and the “straighter" community to the north. He thought it would be the perfect location for a restaurant and began scouring the area. He fixed on Adolfo’s Cantina, which had seen better days and made them an offer that “could not be refused." He tore the place apart and re-did it completely (a bit of a nightmare) but it became the first sleekly modern restaurant in town.

Mark’s turned out to be a great hit with both the gay and straight community, which was unusual at the time.

Mark has always been friendly to the gay community due partly to the fact that his brother and mentor were gay, but Mark’s warmth and expansive personality extends to all.

“I want to take care of everybody," he says.

Finally, after 11 years, he grew tired of the business and wanted to spend time with his kids, Kai and Ashley, who he says, “are the most important thing in my life." He and his wife had divorced, but he describes her as ""¦an elegant lady and my best friend." He sold the business in 2004 and spent a lot of time at Disneyland.

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Four years of retirement and poker left him bored and overweight. His old mentor Bruce advised him to ""¦do what you do best and get back into the business."

With silent partner Larry Pasternak and longtime friend chef Martine Gonzales, he has made it all happen again, opening Mark’s just weeks ago at 853 Laguna Canyon Road, next to the Sawdust. Mark’s phone number is (949) 715-4200.


ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at themarkos755@yahoo.com


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