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Kate Mantilini: The Son(s) Also Rises!

The only problem with this restaurant is that the menu is so extensive and irresistible that I always end up ordering far too much food.
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A new generation takes over a legendary restaurant.

Kate Mantilini is a former bank building at Wilshire & Doheny in BevHills

I was privileged to co-produce the last film that the late, great Billy Wilder directed, a rather amusing albeit unsuccessful attempt at broad physical comedy called Buddy, Buddy, with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. And at least once a week during that year-long period I accompanied Mr. Wilder to one of his favorite restaurants, KATE MANTILINI (9101 Wilshire Blvd, at Doheny in Beverly Hills (310) 278-3699, with valet parking all day). Invariably, I would join the brilliant, sophisticated and irreverent genius in ordering his favorite dish here: Calf's Brains with Black Butter and Scrambled Eggs ($12.95). Now, don't turn up your nose at the thought: the succulent, meltingly-soft globes were sauteed, dressed with nutty peppery butter, blended with the delicious eggs into a memorable dish. (You could also order the brains as an Omelette with mushrooms and fine herbs.) Alternately, if the chef told Billy that fresh Frog's Legs were in from Louisiana, we would occasionally go for these meaty, bony morsels. Either way I was thrilled to be in the company of the great wit and kindly sophisticate. Alas, after Mr. Wilder passed on, I went into the eatery and ordered the dish, only to be told by Exec. Chef David Lewis that they had discontinued it. "Almost no one but Billy ever ordered it," he said. "We kept it on the menu as long as he was around to enjoy it."

Adam and David Lewis have taken over the management of the restaurants!

Typical of the customer loyalty and innate smarts which characterize this 23-year old institution, now undergoing a very exciting metamorphosis under the guidance of the two Lewis brothers, who are taking over the reins of the restaurant empire. You will recall my writing from time to time about Marilyn and Harry Lewis, the engaging and astute couple who founded the Hamburger Hamlet chain in 1950. Legend has it that when they went on their first date, the 21-year old Marilyn asked the handsome former Warner Bros. acting stalwart what he wanted to do with his life and he told her that he dreamed of opening a restaurant where actors could go. He even had a name for it: Hamburger Hamlet. She got up from the table and they went looking for their first location that night. Well, much water has flowed under the proverbial bridge, and in '88 the couple sold their 24 unit Hamburger Hamlet chain to a group of investors, netting them some $30 million for the trouble.

But they kept their Wilshire Blvd. mainstay, Kate Mantilini, as well as repurchasing Westwood's Gardens on Glendon 8 years later in 1985 (it closed last year). In 2003, guided by the increasing involvement of sons Adam and David, the Lewis clan opened a second Kate Mantilini in Woodland Hills, which I have not yet visited but understand is doing quite well. ("Is the menu the same there?" I recently asked David, and he replied, "Yes, but not exactly. They have a Prime Rib, which we don't have at Wilshire.") Harry is 90 years old and incapacitated in a wheel chair, but still mentally alert and approving as he and Marilyn watch the second generation take command of the restaurant chain.

The freshly-baked rye bread and butter never runs out!

Last Friday evening my stalwart reviewing crew sat with me across from Adam and David Lewis as we ate our way through some of the more popular dishes on the enormous menu and reminisced about the years we have all enjoyed dining here. I commented on being here on St. Patrick's Day in 1987 when they opened their doors for the first time, and everyone was asking, "Who was Kate Mantilini?" Adam recounted the oft-told tale this way: "Kate Mantilini was an Irish-Italian woman with a fierce temper who was the mistress of my grandmother's brother. In 1940's Cleveland, Ohio, she was into many entrepreneurial endeavors including... get this, dabbling in fight promoting!" Which explains the huge beautiful mural painted in the architecturally-challenging restaurant that was once a bank. You know the painting I mean: It faces south toward Wilshire Blvd. even though the orientation of the restaurant is east-west. It's 35 feet across and 8 feet high, and if you're a boxing fan you'll recognize the famous Hearns-Hagler knockout scene. April 15, 1985, Caesar's Palace, the fight lasted one round and took eight minutes for Marvelous Marvin Hagler to knock out Hearns. John Wehrle, the muralist the Lewis' chose, had never seen a fight and was given a video of it. He painted the moment Hearns is hit and going down, with a fantasized female ballerina - Kate Mantilini - as the referee. Two years later Hagler visited the restaurant and turned over a chair in surprise when he saw the mural.

The huge mural illustrates the Hagler-Hearns fight.

Since it is only two blocks down the boulevard from the Motion Picture Academy, to which I belong, I often stroll over here where the thought of a rich, thick bowl of their Split Pea Soup with Ham Hock ($6.50/7.50) sustains me through a tedious film. A half-load of crusty warm rye bread with rashers of sweet butter comes with it; starting with a nice-cold Bombay gin martini in a properly chilled glass, a half-dozen oysters ($18), then the soup...and even a dull film becomes bearable.

The legendary meat loaf can be had with a savory knockwurst!

The only problem with this restaurant is that the menu is so extensive and irresistible that I always end up ordering far too much food... which necessitates taking it home to feline Pyewacket and a waiting freezer. Corned Beef Hash with Egg ($16), made with fresh corned beef and roasted potatoes with a sunny side up egg, catches my eye, only to be superseded when I remember how much I love their signature Meatloaf ($18.50), made with two different meats, served with real mashed potatoes, gravy and chopped kale. What they call Hobo Steak ($18.50, originally made at Chasen's at the table with a real steak sautéed in butter until the smoke wafted to the ceiling) here is the same meatloaf grilled over an open fire with the same sides. For an additional $3.50, you can get the meatloaf plate with a large knockwurst, my preferred way to go (ask for brown mustard with this). David and his cooking staff have a deft hand with fish, so the Fish and Chips ($22) is a safe choice -- crispy Alaskan halibut with tartar sauce, cole slaw, beer-battered fries, served with malt vinegar. Sauteed Sand Dabs ($22) is served with a lemon-caper sauce, along with shoestrings, cole slaw and tartar sauce. David Rapoport reminds that the signature Crab Cakes ($22 for two) are his memorable favorite, while Penny McTaggart asked for the homemade Chicken Pot Pie ($18.50), served on weekends and termed by LA Magazine 'the Best in L.A.' My favorite dish here, served Thursday through Sunday 'til they run out, is the Braised Short Ribs, with mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables and a creamy horseradish sauce.

The long-cooked short ribs are among the best I have ever eaten!

I am not a fan of anything called White Chili (it's not really chili) but the dish here ($18.50) seems to have its fans, made with breast of chicken, white rice, white beans, white cheese and fresh tomato salsa. As I said, it's a white bean stew, not chili, but tasty. Two excellent 9 oz. New York Steaks on the menu, both $38 and served sliced (not my favorite way of dishing up a fine steak, so suggest you ask them not to slice it.) The Pork Chop ($24) comes with mashed, gravy/spinach/and chunky apple sauce, with a second chop available for an additional $14. David Lewis tells me that the entrée salad, called The Wildly Wonderful Cannes Film Festival Salad ($18.50), is a huge favorite, smoked salmon on wild, organic field greens with grilled sourdough and slice of duck pate. Lots of other salads and such things as 'Healthy Alternatives,' ranging from Turkey Burgers to 'Life Chicken.' I don't understand the cost of the Life Potato, a large baked potato topped with black bean salsa, at $9.50 a bit much, methinks. The Lewis brothers have inaugurated a program of Tapas/Small Plates to match the way people are increasingly eating these days, and the BBQ Ribs (3 for $9.50) are a fine example. I enjoyed a Grilled Artichoke ($12.95) served with chipotle mayo and creamy mustard. Next visit will see me grazing over this new Tapas menu, going for the Creamed Danish Herring ($7.50) with onions, apples and a beet garnish.

Linguini with clams is an authentic version of this Italian dish!

I could go on and on about the wonders of this extensive menu, from the breakfast dishes served 'til 11 am daily...think Adam's Breakfast ($12.95), scrambled eggs with sliced shiitake mushrooms and goat cheese served with hashed browns. Did I mention the pleasure of coming in late at night and indulging in a Candy Bar Ice Cream Pie ($9.50), a devilish original of vanilla ice cream topped with hot fudge and caramel sauce, thick cream and nuts. On Tuesday there's a 'Special' of Lamb Shank with braised veggies, and I have mentioned my delectable Short Ribs. The wine-and-beer list is extensive and fairly priced, and I was thrilled to see Laetitia's Chardonnay, Arroyo Grande Valley 2008, for $39 a bottle and $10 a glass, a fine buy for a great wine.

One of the things I like about this restaurant are the booths, like cocoons enveloping their occupants in another world with glimpses of the cacophony outside when the wait person intrudes. An interesting point is that Kate Mantilini is not a celebrity chef-driven restaurant like some others in our city. David, in fact, went out of his way to give credit to his associate chefs, Oge and Larry, who came over from Gardens on Glendon when it closed. He told me, "When I'm not on the cooking line, it still runs smoothly, for we have recipes which we have used for years and are not trying to improve on what we think is already near perfect." Amen!

Kate Mantilini has been revitalized and reinvigorated by the two Lewis brothers, who wisely realize that they are serving American roadhouse comfort food from the earlier, simpler age of parents Marilyn and Harry through the prism of 2010.

The restaurant is open Monday starting at 8 am until 10 pm. Tuesday through Thursday from 8 am to 11 pm; on Friday and Saturday to 12 midnight; Saturday breakfast starts at 11 am and runs to 4 pm, dinner to midnight, while Sunday breakfast begins at 10 am and also runs to 4 pm, while dinner that day is served to 10 pm.

Happy Hour is from 4 pm to 8 pm weekdays, and there is lots of delicious $5 food to enjoy with your drinks. Woodland Hills is at 5921 Owensmouth Ave. (818) 348-1095.

Also would like to mention the architectural design: 1987 Morphosis (architects Thom Mayne and Michjael Rostundi) received the progressive architectural award for it. They are currently remodeling the patio for outside dining. Private parties always available; they're famous Station #9 holds 14; however, utilizing tables in the restaurant in any manner allows for parties of any size, as well as close-down rentals.

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