Staff Reporter

Piero Selvaggio was among the first exclusive restaurateurs who looked over the hill and tasted opportunity.

His award-winning Valentino restaurant in Santa Monica was thriving, and he was anxious to spread his love of fine dining to the San Fernando Valley.

That was seven years ago. Today, the average check at Posto in Sherman Oaks is about 20 percent lower than the tab at Valentino, and Selvaggio has learned that, despite his best efforts to tempt the taste buds of Valleyites, some ingredients are best left on the Westside.

Though it enjoys a loyal following, Posto has not changed the dining habits of Valley patrons. "We wanted to do something fine in the area, and we felt the demographics would accept that. But I now know we are an exception to the rule," Selvaggio said.

Forget ambience and power tables and the trendy dish du jour. Despite a high per-capita income in many neighborhoods, Valley diners want their food familiar, piled high and priced low preferably with a free dessert when someone at the table is celebrating a birthday.

"Restaurants don't travel well over the hill," said Ira Spilky, president of Spilky & Associates, a restaurant real estate brokerage in West L.A. "Mel's Diner does a fabulous business. Jerry's (Famous Deli Inc.) does wonderful in the Valley. The common thread is affordable concept, perceived value and a non-threatening type of environment where the check average matches the ambiance and decor."

There are some exceptions, where the fare tends toward the exotic, the check hovers around $35 or more a person, and pricey bottles of wine sell at a brisk clip. But overall, Valley dining is a family affair where cost is a top priority.

"The Valley leans toward practicality," said Merrill Shindler, editor of Zagat Survey and host of a radio show on KLSX-FM 97.1. "Rather than being full of destination restaurants like Beverly Hills, the Valley is where you take the family out to dinner."

The just-released 1999 Zagat Survey, an annual ranking of restaurants, points up the distinctions. In L.A., the No. 1 restaurant for food and popularity is Patina, where the average price of dinner is $55. In the Valley, it is Cafe Bizou, where the tab for two can run under $50 with a $2 corkage fee if you bring your own bottle.

"The No. 1 reason (for our popularity) is the price," said Jonathan Neil Rogers, chef and co-owner of Cafe Bizou. "It's like anything else. If you've got a product, and you make it as good as someone else's product but charge less for it, you're going to be successful."

No one argues with the success of Cafe Bizou's bargain formula, but it doesn't explain why pricey restaurants are so much more successful on the south side of the hill, especially when there's little disparity in income levels.

"Encino is incredible. It's like Beverly Hills," said Tom Pasha, a principal with Golden West Properties, which developed Encino Place. "But people are different there."

When he worked on the Westside, Bizou chef Rogers said he always thought it was his job to decide whether a particular cut of meat should be cooked rare or medium rare. But since opening Cafe Bizou, he's found that Valley diners want it their way, and as often as not, that means steaks well done.

Choices for entrees, ingredients and sauces vary too. Restaurateurs report little, if any, taste in the Valley for such delicacies as sweetbreads, rabbit or truffles. Steak is more popular than lobster. And a filet mignon gets more attention than a short rib cut.

"I think if it's comfortable food, where there isn't a great deal of sophistication in sauces or a cutting-edge dish, it's more reassuring for the overall customer," said Selvaggio. "In general, customers are less adventurous."

There are exceptions. Famed Sushi Nozawa in Studio City, where the chef virtually prohibits diners from making their own selections, and Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas, where the specialties of the house run toward exotic game meats, beckon the adventurous. But diners choose these restaurants specifically because they have a yen to experiment. When it comes to most other eateries, even those known for their innovative dishes, the exotic can be a recipe for failure.

"In the Valley, people want to know what they're going to get to eat, so they'll know they're going to like what they have," said Joe Miller, of the popular Joe's in Venice, who sold his Valley version, Joe Joe's, last April.

Why the difference? More than one owner with eateries on both sides of the hill harbors this theory, whispered confidentially: "They're cheap and they're picky in the Valley, but don't print that."

At least some of the explanation lies in demographics.

The average per-capita income along the Ventura Corridor from Sherman Oaks to Woodland Hills is $116,199, according to 1998 estimates from CB Richard Ellis Inc. In Calabasas it's $144,010 and in Agoura Hills it's $108,943.

But the average number of persons per household for those areas is 2.43, 2.63 and 3.14, respectively, according to the L.A. County Department of Regional Planning.

Compare that to Brentwood, where an average of 2.06 persons live in households with an average income of $178,787. Or Santa Monica, with 1.93 people in households earning $75,930.

"I get a lot of opposition (among restaurant owners) to the Valley," said Darlene Heskamp, senior restaurant specialist for Beitler Commercial in Brentwood. "They feel people don't eat out as often and they don't spend the dollars that they do on the Westside. They (clients) all want to be in West Hollywood, Santa Monica or Brentwood."

On the Westside, business at pricey restaurants is fueled not only by affluent locals, but by tourists and business diners who are less sensitive to prices. In the Valley, there are few hotels catering to tourists, and business dining is limited to the studios on the east end and Warner Center to the west.

The business clientele helps restaurants like Pinot Bistro in Studio City and Monty's in Woodland Hills sell a larger selection of more expensive wines than they do at sister locales. But the farther you get from the Burbank locations of Warner Bros., Walt Disney Co. and the Valley's other entertainment-related companies, the harder it is to sell wine.

"People in the city and in Pasadena order more wines by the bottle," said Bill Corwin, general manager at Papashon in Encino. And while Cafe Bizou has seen an increase in wine bottle sales, the owners attribute it to the bargain prices. "Other restaurants charge two times what the bottle costs," said Rogers. "With our formula, it's what you would pay at a liquor store."

With larger families and lower levels of disposable income, Valley dining is often reserved for special occasions or weekends. Pinot Bistro reports that about 18 percent to 20 percent of its business comes from private parties.

On any given night at Papashon, there is a birthday or anniversary celebration at one out of every four tables, said Corwin. The restaurant held 75 private parties during the holiday season, and the bar, which brings in $600 to $1,500 a night thanks to a decision to convert the bar area to a music room, helps boost volume significantly.

Corwin attributes the special-occasion mentality to the restaurant's pricing. "We're pretty expensive for the Valley," he says. "I think over the hill, people wouldn't blink at our prices, because everyone is very expensive."

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