CAFE BIZOU BEATS PATINA AS MOST POPULAR SPOT

For nine years running, Patina reigned as L.A.'s most popular restaurant, according to the Zagat Survey an awe-inspiring feat considering the fickle tastes of L.A. diners.

But that reign has ended.

The recently released Zagat Survey results show that Patina the elegant Hollywood restaurant that launched Joachim Splichal to celebrity-chef status has slipped all the way to fifth place.

The No. 1 spot has been taken over by Caf & #233; Bizou a smaller, less fancy, less expensive restaurant run by one man from France and another from Wales, who opened their first eatery in the San Fernando Valley.

"Caf & #233; Bizou is wildly popular," said Merrill Shindler, one of two local editors who have been compiling the survey since its beginning 15 years ago. "Remember, the term here is 'most popular,' which overlaps with our other categories."

Indeed, the top-ranked L.A. restaurant for food quality is not Caf & #233; Bizou. Nor is it Patina. That honor goes to Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, renown for its succulent seafood dishes and sushi.

The Zagat Survey ranks restaurants based on surveys filled out by consumers.

"The best bang for the franc, serving gourmet food at rock-bottom prices," was one surveyor's opinion of Caf & #233; Bizou.

The owners of the 6-year-old restaurant were taken aback by the top honor.

"This was a very nice surprise," said Neil Rogers, one co-owner who has been busy opening a new Caf & #233; Bizou in the recently finished Water Garden II office complex in Santa Monica. There is another Caf & #233; Bizou in Pasadena.

Karen Berk, the other editor of the Zagat Survey in Los Angeles, was not surprised by Caf & #233; Bizou's jump from No. 2 in the 2000 survey to No. 1 in 2001.

"I thought it was coming because of the fact that Patina was purchased by Restaurant Associates in New York," she said. "So I think the perception by many people is that the restaurant may have changed."

But Joachim Splichal denied that. In fact, he said, the sale to the major corporation has freed him up to work more in the kitchen and concentrate on making the French/California cuisine even better.

"Maybe people are saying I am becoming too big, or I don't focus anymore on the restaurant, but that is not true," said Splichal, whose Patina Group of restaurants include Pinot Bistro in Studio City, Caf & #233; Pinot and Nick & Stef's steakhouse in downtown Los Angeles, and Pinot Provence in Orange County.

Good, not fine, food

Caf & #233; Bizou's owners admit their restaurant wouldn't win any top honors in a lot of categories.

"We are going for good quality food rather than the extra fancy type of dining," said chef Rogers, who is from Wales. "We are not like Patina. We are two very different restaurants."

Rogers and his partner, Philippe Gris, opened their first restaurant in Sherman Oaks in 1994. It was an unassuming former coffee shop on Ventura Boulevard that drew a handful of regulars. But a little more than a month after opening, the restaurant received a small but positive review in the Los Angeles Times. Soon the telephone was ringing off the hook.

The eatery, know for its large portions of California/French cuisine, $1 soups and salads, and $2 corkage fee, soon expanded to a larger location a few blocks away, where it could seat 160 people.

The caf & #233;'s reputation for good food at affordable prices (a sesame salmon entr & #233;e costs $14.95), along with the low corkage fee, quickly made it wildly popular.

"Maybe we should ask for a vote recount," joked Patti Rockenwagner, co-owner of Rockenwagner, a restaurant in Santa Monica that made Gourmet magazine's list of top 10 restaurants in L.A., but couldn't crack Zagat's top 10. "These are very subjective things. Food is just like fashion what is good to you may not be good to me, and vice versa."

Mark Peel, co-owner of Campanile, listed as the No. 2 most popular restaurant in the Zagat Survey, thought Patina had slipped in rank because the eatery was closed for three months this spring and summer for remodeling. But the Zagat Survey deadline was May 15, about the same time that Patina shuttered its doors for the remodel.

Every year, the most popular L.A. restaurant category comes up with a few surprises. The list consists of some very fancy eateries and some very casual places, editor Shindler pointed out.

That is probably why The Cheesecake Factory was listed at No. 10 on the most popular list and Spago Beverly Hills was No. 3.

The Zagat Survey every year rates 1,645 restaurants in Southern California, from Santa Barbara to Orange County to Palm Springs.

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