The Michelangelo of the Menu: Alexander Perino's Rules of Fine Dining

Fashion show at Perino's, 1953. Photo courtesy LAPL/Herald-Examiner Collection

"There are certain refinements of living for which one strives. A weekend at Waldorf's...a night at the Mardi Gras...a date with Kim Novak (if you're a he)...a few bars from Perry Como (if you're a she)...a few hours at Perino's (if it's "WE!")." -- LA Times, The Epitome of Perfection, August 29, 1957 -- PDF

The year was 1932. Los Angeles was firmly in the grip of the Great Depression. A new French-Italian restaurant opened its doors at 3927 Wilshire Boulevard. From the beginning, it was different. That first night, the owner, an elegant man who fancied himself akin to an "Italian prince," sold 25 dinners at $1.25 a pop. In a town where a person could eat a square meal for five or ten cents, this was a bold move, to say the least. But Alexander Perino was not a man to cut corners. For over 50 years, Perino's, which Alexander always simply called "the Place," was considered not only the best culinary experience in California, but "perhaps the only sign of civilization west of the Hudson." -- PDF: The Man Who Set The Standards)

Alexander Perino was born in the Piedmonte region of Italy in 1895. He was the youngest of twelve children and idolized his father, a wine maker, who died when he was thirteen. His mother sent him to apprentice at a pastry shop on the Italian Riviera. He would never forget the food he experienced as a young boy -- "beef as soft as butter, mortadella made by hand, fine white tuna cured in oil, tiny whole anchovies, young veal, chickens fed only on corn, polenta, rice picked fresh from the field for risotto, tiny frogs, sautéed in butter and olive oil, eaten whole, bones and all, melon that was black inside and peaches from a tree at the top of the vineyard." Alexander developed an equal passion for the opera. He would bribe a singing chef with cigarettes to teach him arias and give local opera singers éclairs in exchange for theater tickets. At 15, his mother died and he sailed for New York, finding shelter in the city with family friends.

For the next two decades, he lived a service industry vagabond existence, moving from Delmonico's to the Plaza, to the Congress Hotel in Chicago, and to Cleveland's Hotel Dashler. His love for opera intensified -- "every time Caruso sang, I quit." (PDF)

His English became so good that his low, courtly voice lost any trace of an accent. By 1925, he was in Los Angeles, where he worked briefly at the Biltmore before becoming head waiter at the posh Victor Hugo's. It was while working at Hugo's, considered the best eatery in Los Angeles, that he realized: "If this is good, I can do better." So with $2,000 loaned from an old Chicago friend, he opened Perino's. A few days after the opening, a cocky chef walked in and told Perino he was a good cook.

"How good?" Perino asked.

"Try me," Attilio Balzano replied. Perino did, and a 37-year-long culinary A-team was born.

Although the Depression carried on, Perino continued to raise prices. Believing "the secret of good food is simply quality; there is no substitute," he scoured the world for the best, freshest ingredients, prices be damned. He knew if you gave people the best, they would recognize it. He bought his fish from a Scandinavian man on 1st street, had a farmer in Palos Verdes grow his vegetables, imported lettuce from Kentucky, had caviar hand delivered from Russia, bought endive from Montana, used only Ethiopian coffee, and once had a man stand by to ensure that calves being slaughtered were just the right age. The menu featured expert, rich European dishes -- vermicelli al'uova, gnocchi piedmontese, saltimbocca, cold asparagus with hot vinaigrette, and creme brulee topped off with Grand Marnier. The décor was always oh so correct and elegant: silver serving dishes stamped at the bottom with "Perino's," Irish linen napkins and tablecloths woven especially so that lint would never cling to the guests.

The early crowd often consisted of a lot of wise guys. Perino once recounted a man pulling a gun, which a waiter ended up hiding in the soup. But by 1933, café society and stars like Mae West, who ate Sunday supper there with her manager, were beginning to find Perino's. They were drawn initially to the menu, the impeccable "silent" service and the "continental air." They often stayed because of Alexander, who could often be found teaching the likes of Ronald Coleman how to make a special salad dressing or huddled with Delores Del Rio discussing his latest secret recipe.

When a grease fire in the kitchen burst into flames in 1934, Alexander himself personally rushed lunchtime patrons to safety. The restaurant was soon rebuilt, and by 1935 the adjacent cocktail bodega was in operation. On one night alone the bodega played host to Zasu Pitts, Ronald Coleman, the Spencer Tracys, Franchot Tone and Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, the Gary Coopers, Irene Dunne, the Fred Astaires, Randolph Scott, and Kay Frances. For the next twenty years, high society luncheons, pre-theater and pre-sporting event dinners, and common folks' birthdays and engagement parties were held at Perino's. Sinatra would play the piano. Cole Porter, Cary Grant, the mobster Bugsy Siegel, and Bette Davis were regulars. Perino's became so known for its high end clientele that Dorothy Chandler hopped tables seeking donations when she was raising money for the construction of the Music Center.

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Fire at Perino's, 1953. Photo courtesy LAPL/Herald-Examiner Collection

Fire seemed to stalk Perino's. The restaurant greatly expanded in the early '50s when it moved to 4101 Wilshire. The famed Paul R. Williams designed it in the "New Orleans" style. In summer 1954, a fire started by a lighted cigarette gutted the restaurant, leaving many in high society feeling homeless. The reopening of Perino's in February of 1955 was the event of the season. Its new "French continental décor" consisted of beige, charcoal and pink tones and glittering 17th century chandeliers. The main dining room alone could seat 150 people. The menu included over 150 entrees and 270 wines. Twenty-eight dishes were devoted solely to sole. Soft violin music provided accompaniment in the restaurant while the color scheme and lighting made "everybody look radiant."

Henry Kissinger, Alexander Perino and Richard Nixon. Photo courtesy LAPL/Herald-Examiner Collection

By the 1960s, Perino himself was a culinary legend. His views on service were strict: "The best service is that which is never seen." His rules for the kitchen were even stricter. He never froze food, believing it took the love out of it. Tomatoes were never iced. Spinach was served by pouring boiling water over it and then adding cream, butter and nutmeg. In cooking, sour cream and consommé were used instead of flour and starch. Vinegar was best for salads when made from the first pressing of grapes. Use of garlic and much seasoning was discouraged in favor of "natural flavors." Wine bottles were covered in sand to preserve flavor. Serving from glass dishes was no good.

Despite this formality, Perino was not a humorless man. He loved a good joke, including pretending to shake down fellow restaurateur, "Prince" Michael Romanoff, when he skipped his tab one evening.

In 1969, changing times forced Perino to sell to Esgro Incorporated. The arrangement for Perino to stay in charge quickly fell through, and he soon left. He was preceded by his great chef Balzanno and almost all of the kitchen staff. The restaurant remained open until 1986, when an ill-advised move downtown went bust. Perino died on New Year's Day, 1982, at the age of 86. He considered his personal motto to be: "Food, service, cleanliness and no cheating." For a time, his values served him and his customers well.

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