Kate Mantillini closed Saturday, and with it a dining tradition for many of us Angelenos.
Me and Pop tried to get a dinner reservation on Wednesday, but they weren’t taking any, so we ankled in early to try our luck in person. Lisa Glucksman, the hostess has been seating us for well close to fifteen years squeezed us in, “Only because it’s you and your dad...” she said while leading us to a four-top in the back. It’s the only restaurant where I've ever had suck with the M’aitre D. Loyalty has its rewards.
Pop and I ordered our usual: two dirty martinis and two platters of oysters. Nothing makes the old man happier than a nice gin/bivalve combo and here is the photographic evidence:
Pop reminisced about the first time he came to Kate’s. It was 1987 and he and his second wife Carol were driving down Doheny on the way to the airport and they wanted a quick bite before getting on the plane. They spotted the newly-opened Kate Mantillini and went in. It was, and remains, a real eyeball-banger of a room, with its soaring lines, a row of booths that looked like ship’s berths, and a Hollywood-hip vibe.
Though Pop doesn’t remember what he ordered that day, I’d lay odds it was either the corned beef hash or the knockwurst plate. Kate’s American roadhouse menu suited his Midwestern palate perfectly. Thus, dining history, at least in the Schickel family, was made.
We celebrated nearly all of our birthdays with a family brunch in the big, weird corner booth which forced everyone to choose sides when sitting down, and God help you if someone in the middle needed to get up for the restroom.
When Carol got sick with cancer in 1991, we came here on breaks from the Century City Hospital cafeteria. We would get the chicken pot pie, her favorite, to go. Carol passed away, and we all toasted her at a long table over a family dinner there. Later, Pop found love again, with Barbara, who always ordered the sand dabs.
With all this talk of food, I have to say, it’s actually not the food I will miss, which was always pretty hit-or-miss—like the time I ordered a bowl of spaghetti marinara that tasted like Comet. On Wednesday I had a piece of rotisserie chicken that was so dry it must have been on the spit since the restaurant opened. But it was all comfort food nonetheless and the crusty bread was simply divine and the martinis never, ever disappointed. Over the years business seemed to sag, and the owners, the Lewis family (who also brought us the wonderful Hamburger Hamlet restaurants), would tinker with the menu, and innovate with things like the roving guacamole cart, which trolled the aisles of the restaurant like a lost dinghy.
No, the real reason I have eaten probably hundreds of dinners there is because is really was the best and often the only option in the neighborhood. Kate’s was the place to go after a screening at the Writer’s Guild Theater, or the Academy, the Laemmle Music Hall, or any of the several private screening rooms in the mid-city area. Pop is a film critic, and we always wound up here, looking for an after-show bite off the late supper menu. During the day it was a lively lunch spot and God knows how many deals have been done over chopped salad in that room. Kate Manitlini was always a no-brainer for anyone who had show-business to attend to. But, no matter what time of day you swung in through those big, glass doors, or for what reason, the welcome was always warm and convivial.
Young Hollywood has already found other places to power lunch, but it’s the older folks I worry about. Kate’s has always been home base to the aviator-frames-and-safari-jacket generation of Hollywood heavyweights, the guys who were on top in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. Those “players” come here now with their grown-up grandchildren. I remember a raucous dinner party for Robert Towne after a screening of "Ask the Dust," at the Academy theater. It was held in the weird, neon-lit "private" room at the back of the house, under the stairs to the restrooms. That room had the aesthetic charm of a peep-show booth which felt perfect for the occasion. Pop and Towne are out of touch these days, and I hope that old lion is still roaring.
I am no longer the ingénue I was when I first ordered the meatloaf, and yet, no matter how much I age, I always felt like a kid at Kate’s where the clientele skewed towards alter kokker, and if there one thing I know, it's hard to teach these old dogs new tricks. "Where will we go for dinner now?" Pop asked, and I had no good answer.
“This is making me sad,” Pop said, slurping down an oyster. "Me too," I said swallowing a salty lump of tears in my throat. I was remembering all the late-morning breakfasts I had there with an ex-lover. We would roll in around 11am, love-drunk and ravenous for cheeseburgers, which Kate's always did well and had aptly named, “One Delicious Cheeseburger.” He and I were so besotted with each other we sat on the same side of the booth, we couldn’t bear to have the table come between us. He loved Kate’s as much as I did, and though our love didn’t last, I know somewhere he is feeling the loss of it too.
Of course, what makes any place special are the people, and in an industry with high turnover, the waitstaff at Kate Mantilini had surprising longevity. Meg, Terry, Jason and Robert were all familiar faces and made the joint feel like home. They weren’t there to add hipster elan, they were hired and kept on because they were damn fine waiters, and the service at Kate's was always friendly and impeccable. I hugged them goodbye, surprised by how attached I had become.
“I can’t believe this place is closing,” Pop said as we shuffled out to the valet, past the throngs waiting to be seated one last time, “it just makes no goddamn sense.” It never does. Kate Mantilini, like so many great and irreplaceable places, fell to a rent increase. Sometimes it feels like I write the Obituaries of Place over here on LA Observed. But I guess that’s the price of growing older—the endings start to pile up. There are other endings coming I suppose, and the closing of Kate Mantilini makes it all feel eminent in a way that made me cry as soon as I got in my car.
I will miss that place, and everything it has meant to me, my family, my neighborhood and to the artistic community of people it has served so well for so long.
Happy father's day to you, Pop, and all of you who will now have to find someplace else for brunch.