Groucho Marx used to say, “I’m a person of high principles, and if you don’t like them … I have others.”
I too have high principles, including what kind of restaurant I like to go to. It’s not just about the food, it’s the experience. One of the most important parts of the experience is whether or not I am treated well, like a guest. Are the people in the restaurant more interested in the customers’ experience, or in just getting the patrons in and out with a swipe of the credit card?
When you enter La Scala, the first tip off is the sign displayed at the front desk that states the restaurant’s policy: “If the party is not complete, the folks who arrive first will not be seated.” We are usually on time. But we were meeting friends who are usually 30 minutes late.
So what are we supposed to do for 30 minutes? Not seeing a bar or reception area with seating, what I wanted to do was to be seated and order a glass of wine and an appetizer. Not permitted. Finally, after I pleaded my case, the hostess grudgingly agreed to seat us at a table for two, with another table for two adjacent to it for our friends when they arrived — if it wasn’t already taken by then.
In the late 1950s La Scala was at the pinnacle of the Italian restaurants. Jean Leon was unfailingly polite and a great host. James Dean was the financial backer. Marilyn Monroe was a frequent guest. The customer was king. The restaurant was located on Little Santa Monica Boulevard. I believe it was the first Italian restaurant in Los Angeles to feature pasta made on the premises, and it was famous for the pasta dishes.
The new location on N. Canon Drive is a large room more like a factory than a fine dining restaurant. The tables are close together, and you are sitting as much with the unknown person next to you as you are with your dining companions. The restaurant is quite popular, so it’s often filled to capacity and very loud. Our waitress was a pleasant blonde woman who was clearly not Italian and who had trouble pronouncing the Italian names on the menu.
The menu had a lot of pasta dishes on it, and I’ve had several of them before. The pasta is quite good. This time we tried some other dishes. I had a veal chop, which was good with a particularly rich balsamic reduction sauce served on the side. One companion had the swordfish, which was good, if a touch dry, and we also shared mussels and a crab cake. We liked the crab cake a lot, and I liked the mussels, but the broth could have benefited from more salt and a lot more garlic. We did not order the chopped salad, which has become the signature dish of the restaurant, and the reason a lot of our friends go there.
I ordered a glass of wine instead of a bottle because of another of my strongly felt principles: restaurants should mark up wine prices two to three times, but never more. Unfortunately, all the wines on this list were marked up at least four times, making the bottles outrageously expensive.
Then, it was time for dessert. I ordered a cheesecake, which we all shared and enjoyed. When it was time for coffee, I asked if I could have one biscotti just to try it. “No” said the waitress, “you have to order the biscotti plate with eight of them.” So I asked to talk to the manager. The manager, Kenne Hoffman, a pleasant gentleman, showed up promptly, and confirmed that I could not order one biscotti. I explained that I was writing an article about the restaurant. He replied that the reason he could not violate the rule was that if he did he would lose his job. “Who would be so cruel?” I asked. “The owner, Gigi Leon,” he replied. “Can I talk with her?” I asked. “No, she is rarely here, and runs the restaurant from her corporate office.” He explained.
So that was it. This restaurant did not live up to my principles, and when it comes to restaurants I don’t have others. So I paid the bill, which was about $50 a person, a bit high for what we ate, and left. No one said good-bye.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at email@example.com.
If You Go
La Scala Beverly Hills
434 Canon Dr.
Beverly Hills, Calif.