Tuesday, September 2, 2003

La Dolce Vita

9.3.03 - At 8:30 we went down to Beverly Hills to La Dolce Vita on Little Santa Monica Boulevard. La Dolce Vita has been in its present location since 1966. George Raft was one of the original partners. Sinatra ate there three times a week when he was in town. Along with everyone else who was anyone – Presidents, captains of industry and those in the movie colony.

Its interior was designed by the late Lyle Wheeler, the premiere set designer of 20th Century-Fox Studios who won about 8 Oscars and also designed the Beverly Hills Post Office (which has been landmarked but recently vacated). Semi-circular red-tufted leather banquettes, glazed brick walls which when JH tapped it, much to his amazement, discovered to be hollow. Mr. Wheeler was, remember, an art director.

Al Uzielli and David Simmer
For years La Dolce Vita was one of the most popular spots in Beverly Hills with the movie crowd and the studio hotshots, as well as their guests from New York and Europe. The original owners finally passed away and the place was sold to a man who put his bookkeeper in charge. Good-bye La Dolce Vita and all that; run into a state of bankruptcy or near-bankruptcy.

Somewhere at that point, three young film producers, producing partners, decided to buy the place. One of those men is a New York boy, Al Uzielli, son of Anne Ford. That’s how I heard about it. His aunt Charlotte told me. “Al’s bought an interest in a restaurant.”

Already that sounds nervous-making to many ears. The pros and the observant know that’s a tough business. I guess that was the consensus.

So on this last night in L.A., we were just going to have a drink and talk to Al about his new restaurant while JH took some pictures of the place. When we arrived, Al was busy with customers – the place was buzzing. So we had a drink at the bar, where the bartender Dave Simmer was also a partner, producing and restaurant, with Al. (Their third partner, Ben Myron, was in Las Vegas — A La Dolce Vita in Vegas?).

Dave told us about their new place. He’s got a beachboy casual manner, serves a cocktail like a pro and talks about his business like a HBS educated venture capitalist. Hmm.

Ruben, the restaurant's maitre'd of 30 years
La Dolce Vita had long had a great reputation for its solid menu. Think “21” in New York. The partners decided to keep it that way. They painted some white wrought ironwork black, replaced the carpet with a similar carpet (dark ruby), refurbished the walls and the banquettes, wired them for the internet and telephones, put in a brand new kitchen and opened the doors to the brand new La Dolce Vita and otherwise kept everything the same as it was when it opened thirty-seven years ago.

It was buzzing the night we were there (a Thursday), packed (seating for 65). In the few weeks they’ve been re-opened, they’ve seen Betty White, Barbara Sinatra, Nancy and Tina Sinatra, Brendan Fraser, Nancy Reagan, Kirk and Anne Douglas, Betsy Bloomingdale, Connie Wald, Bob Evans, Mel Adelson, Nikki Haskell, Andrew Lazar, Neil Mortiz, Jeanne Morhn, Jackie Collins, Tita Cahn and New York’s ubiquitous Alex Hitz. Many are regulars once again.

The maitre d’ Ruben has been in charge for the past 30 years and welcomes you as if you were a guest in his home. Warm, dark and cozy, with great lighting flattering the fondest hopes and wishes, La Dolce Vita is famous for their Northern Italian cuisine, considered by many to be the best in Southern California. I had Scampi. The who-cares-about-tomorrow-version. Couldn’t stand it; it was so good. JH had Oso Bucco. Again, the same. The service, they like to say, is second to none. Salads are prepared tableside by those sleek gents in black tie. So’s the zabaglione.

That last paragraph is the promo paragraph, boldfaced but all true. I’d gone to see Al and his restaurant with the natural (and irrelevant) skepticism one can have about a risky business. After talking to Dave the bartender/ producing partner (who explained that since they were only open for dinner, they used the place as their production office by day).

“ In our business, you spend a lot of time waiting for a phone call. This is something to do while we’re waiting.”

Their approach is what impressed me most. Take a good old product, suffering from neglect, return it to its formal status, the tried, true, tested and very good. All quality. Streamline the necessities (kitchen, electronic accessibilities), buy the best, serve the best (“a full drink,” as Dave pointed out), and see what happens.
A look inside La Dolce Vita
“ Everything old is new again,” Peter Allen wrote, and suddenly La Dolce Vita seemed like a natural. This is the kind of place that all of the partners would like to go, a landmark restaurant where every meal is prepared from scratch and any dish requested will be made to order whether or not it’s on the menu. The best wines, and the unaparalled service. Ah, Hollywood.

The place opens for business every evening except Monday. Reservations are a very good idea. Mentioning NYSD will probably make no impression at all but you can try. It doesn’t matter because these guys are all pumped up about their new venture.

For Al Uzielli, it seems to me, it’s in his blood. While Henry Ford II’s grandson, he is also the son of the late Gianni Uzielli, once a famous restaurateur in Manhattan. A chip offa the old, as they used to say. Whatever it is, he loves it. So did I. So did JH, and from the looks of it, the crowd that night.

La Dolce Vita

9785 (Little) Santa Monica Boulevard
Beverly Hills 90210
(310) 278-1845