By NOLA L. SARKISIAN

Staff Reporter

Restaurateur Michael McCarty says owning a fine restaurant is like directing theater.

His setting is Michael's in Santa Monica. His servers educate the audience about fine dining. And the story, of course, is the food.

Each day brings a new performance for the 46-year-old McCarty, whose opening of Michael's 20 years ago helped revolutionize fine dining.

"It used to be that if you were hungry, you went out to eat and that was it," he says. "Now, people view good restaurants as clubs, where they linger for hours. Dinner can now be the only event of the evening, not just a stepping stone to going to a movie or the theater."

When McCarty first opened Michael's, L.A. had only a handful of select restaurants Ma Maison, Scandia, L'Ermitage and Valentino's.

McCarty saw an opportunity to treat people to a different way of dining. During his studies in Paris, he had learned how fine chefs created regional cuisine by buying food from local producers and farmers to ensure uniform taste and freshness. It was a concept Alice Waters was popularizing at Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

So when McCarty opened Michael's in 1979, he impressed the culinary world with his "California cuisine." Despite the high prices (a dish of ice cream cost $12), Michael's created a buzz that attracted crowds.

"He did more than just open a restaurant he made a statement about having fun with food, presenting it with less sauce and letting the taste of each vegetable come forward by itself," says Piero Salvaggio, owner of Valentino's.

McCarty defied tradition at every opportunity. He served California wines. He chose to open in Santa Monica rather than along "restaurant row" on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Even his servers were less formal, foregoing tuxedo shirts and black ties in favor of pink Polo shirts, khaki pants and green, custom-made ties by Ralph Lauren.

"One of his strengths is to not make food intimidating, and he does that with his persona and attitude," says Barbara Fairchild, executive editor of Bon Appetit. "He's accessible. He's one of those restaurant owners who is there every night greeting guests and making them feel like they're a special guest at a party."

McCarty credits his parents with his love of food and entertaining. The New York native grew up in a neighborhood along the Hudson River and always seemed to be in the midst of a party at his home.

His love of food grew even more when he lived with a French family in Paris as part of a program offered through Andover/Exeter, the academy he attended. He later returned to Paris and earned degrees from Cordon Bleu, Academie du Vin and Ecole Hoteliere de Paris.

After graduation, he went looking for a place to open his own restaurant and found an old home on Third Street in Santa Monica. He secured a $250,000 bank loan and went into business.

Michael's became a magnet for up-and-coming chefs like Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton.

"It was a very exciting time when Michael allowed us to experiment and do lots of things," says Peel, who went on to open Campanile in 1989 with Silverton, his wife and owner of La Brea Bakery.

"We did some stupid things (at Michael's) like serve lamb with kiwi sauce that wasn't very good but nobody said you couldn't do that. They couldn't say it wasn't in the book, because there was no book."

As business grew, so did McCarty's entrepreneurial spirit. By 1989, he had opened four more restaurants, including another Michael's in New York.

He has had his share of disappointments.

In what became a rancorous dispute, Santa Monica voters in 1990 stopped his effort to build a 160-room luxury beachfront hotel along Pacific Coast Highway. His failed investment in the property resulted in $6 million in losses and forced him to declare bankruptcy.

"I pretty much lost everything I had worked for in the past 10 years," he says.

McCarty fought his way back by finding partners and downsizing operations at the two restaurants he has managed to retain. These days, business is booming, with the restaurants posting a total of $2.5 million in annual revenues.

Some customers never strayed, including Brentwood resident Bob Justman, who has eaten there at least once a month since it opened.

"The restaurant appeals to all the senses," says Justman, a retired television producer. "He provides the whole package, which is hard to find elsewhere."

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