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The Good Life

Michael's, Santa Monica, California

By David Shaw | From Fidel Castro, Summer 94
Michael's, Santa Monica, California

Fifteen years ago, on the cusp of the '80s--when Americans discovered fine food, junk bonds and a limitless capacity for self-gratification--Michael McCarty was a pioneer, indeed, a prophet. At his eponymous restaurant three blocks from the Pacific Ocean, McCarty helped create (or at least popularize) what came to be known as California cuisine; in the process--in less than six months, in fact--Michael's was hailed by The New York Times as "the newest celebrity hangout."

McCarty, then a brash 25 year old, was the walking incarnation of the Me decade. Slicked-back hair. Armani suits. Versace ties. Susan Bennis Warren Edwards shoes. A half-million dollars' worth of art on the walls (David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Richard Diebenkorn). And, oh, that attitude. McCarty worked the front of the house, offering fierce handshakes and vigorous backslaps to everyone in sight, but when I once asked if a particularly talented young chef was on duty that night, McCarty sniffed disdainfully, "I'm the chef here. All the recipes we use here are my recipes. Ken is just one of my cooks."

"Business is up 22 percent," was McCarty's typical greeting in the heady '80s, when he boasted openly about how much he charged and how much he spent. "My payroll is $750,000 a year," he once said. "I pay $4,000 a month for flowers, another $1,000 a month for taking care of the garden. I spend $1,200 a month on bread. I have $35,000 in silver."

But it's the '90s. McCarty lost a bloody--and costly--political battle to build a hotel on the beach. He lost his Malibu home to last year's fires. He lost more than 1,000 bottles of wine in the January 17 earthquake. In recession-battered Southern California, most people are no longer willing to pay more than $100 a head for dinner--or $11 for a bottle of Perrier ("But it's a big bottle," McCarty used to say with a big grin when customers complained.)

McCarty has lowered his prices. Twice. He also reduced the automatic service charge from 16 percent to 15 percent. In a city where the Italians have handed the French their worst licking since Dien Bien Phu, the French-trained McCarty even made the ultimate gestures of surrender: he's added pizzas to his menu, and he's replaced the Perrier with San Pellegrino (at $6 a bottle).

But some things never change. The expensive modern art is still on the walls. A painting by McCarty's wife, Kim, still adorns the front of the menu. The waiters and waitresses still wear pink dress shirts and dark ties. The outdoor garden is still one of the most beautiful settings in California for a meal. Although you can also smoke a cigar seated on a sofa in the restaurant's cozy indoor bar, there is probably no more pleasant public space in all of Southern California for a postprandial cigar than the garden at Michael's. You're surrounded by fresh flowers, with a small pond of sorts in the back and portable, overhead heaters for cool fall and winter nights. In spring and summer, your cigar--and your smile of satisfaction--provide all the warmth you need. Michael's even has a humidor in case you forget to bring your own cigar.

This is not exciting, cutting-edge food as it was when Michael's opened in 1979. McCarty long ago surrendered that mantle. But his food, in spirit if not always in fact, is pretty much what it has always been. There is a heavy emphasis on local birds; fish are from both coasts as well as Europe and Hawaii. There are also a few pasta dishes, excellent salads and good meat--including one of the best aged steaks in town.

My personal favorites: thin slices of duck breast in a sauce of Cognac and green peppercorns. Squab with foie gras in a sauce of Pinot Noir, ginger and scallions. Pork tenderloin with sage, double-blanched garlic and olive oil. Norwegian salmon with beurre blanc and fresh chives. The best appetizers here have always been the simplest. Superb oysters from the Pacific Northwest. Gravlax in a mustard dill sauce. Hawaiian ahi (yellowfin tuna) carpaccio with mushrooms and Parmigiano cheese.

The pizzas are chewy and richly flavored--especially the one with shiitake and oyster mushrooms, mozzarella and fontina cheeses and fresh thyme. But I also like the pizza with prosciutto di Parma, sweet onions, Montrachet goat cheese and roasted red and yellow peppers.

Michael's wine list is pricey, but he has several wines by the glass and a good selection of bottles from California and France; you can even find a few affordable choices if you look hard--the 1986 La Jota Cabernet and the '81 Kistler Cabernet at $45 each, for example. For a bit more--$75--he has a luscious 1985 Volnay Champans from Comtes Lafon, best known for magisterial Meursaults.

-- David Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic for the Los Angeles Times.

157 Third Street, Santa Monica, California
Phone: (310) 451-0843
Lunch: $30 to $48 without wine
Dinner: $44 to $57 without wine

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