Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fran O'Briens Greek Restaurant

Sometimes a restaurant location is simply doomed. No matter the change in management or ownership, no matter the various menu concepts and decor overhauls, no matter how much promotion, nothing makes it in this spot. (There's also the converse: the gold-mine location that will make even the most unworthy kitchen profitable. I'm not sure which scenario is more pitiful.) There's a restaurant I remember from the early 1980s in Los Angeles, and since that time it seems to have disappeared leaving almost no trace, or anyway not in cyberland. Perhaps it was just one in a string of restaurants in just such a bad location. Wanting to verify the name, to see if I really could have remembered it correctly, I did a Google search, and I didn't come up with much: some steak houses around the country (not the right cuisine); a link that looked promising, but once clicked routed me to a very unexpected pornographic site that made me want to pour Purell over my keyboard; finally, one mention of the place, buried in a comment on a popular restaurant review site. The review was for a different restaurant that had apparently gone into the same spot, following another (and maybe numerous others) sandwiched in between. But one instance of the name was all I really needed, just to convince myself I hadn't invented the whole unlikely thing. Fran O'Brien's Greek Restaurant. Excuse me? Not that I think every Greek establishment needs to be called Uncle Nikos or Barba Yiani's something or other, but then why not create more of an allusion—not to the sea, since that's hackneyed at this point, but to some other element of landscape, tradition, or culture? Why have a couldn't-be-more-Irish name to promote Greek food? Granted, they included "Greek Restaurant" in the name, to thwart misconceptions, but still. Maybe this had something to do with why the restaurant didn't survive, though it must've been more than that. I don't know how my parents found the restaurant (passed it on Pico Boulevard, read about it in a guide somewhere, got a recommendation from a friend), but it became our favorite Greek restaurant in the city. Actually, there weren't many choices, but if you wanted a great saganaki or other Greek specialties, then it was the right choice. The food was always fresh, prepared well, very tasty—and we have always been hard customers to please, since my mother's Greek heritage means an intimate, home-cooked familiarity with authentic Hellenic cuisine. The service was always attentive without obsequiousness, and come to think of it . . . a high percentage of the wait staff was Spanish speaking (likely Mexican, given the Southern California setting, although I dislike making assumptions). Irish name, Greek food, Hispanic waitstaff. And this was before cultural fusion was on the mainstream radar (not that the food itself was fusion cuisine). As I said, Fran O'Brien's became our favorite Greek restaurant, and we went there often. We went together as a family of three, and my parents also chose this restaurant when we went out to dinner with friends. Aside from remembering the restaurant itself, in general, I also remember one colorful evening spent there, not long before I went away to an arts-intensive boarding school to pursue a dance career. We were five that night: me, my parents, and another couple—in fact, the couple I referenced in an earlier post about the Beverly Comstock Hotel (see Dumpster Dive 90210). It is true that whenever we went out with this couple, something happened; it was usually a dramatic something, although the night at Fran O'Brien's was tame. The guy was a comedy writer for television and had done a stint with Saturday Night Live I seem to recall, which to my thirteen-year-old self meant I was in the presence of greatness when he was around. He was funny, a prankster, and I liked to think of him as the much older brother I never had. His girlfriend also had a zany sense of humor, but while he was genuinely a freewheeling sort, her easygoing manner was more superficial, layered over a very tightly wound set of nerves and a deep sense of Baby Boom entitlement. This is beside the point. The dinner I remember at Fran O'Brien's was actually made more interesting by a woman sitting with her date at a two-top just across from our larger table. Her name, I will never forget, was Henrietta. I don't recall exactly how we got involved with her, or she with us. It may have been because we wanted to take a group picture, and she was asked or else volunteered to take it for us. The next thing we know, our friends (either Mr. SNL or his girlfriend) invite her to get in on the group, she jumps at the chance, and a waiter is flagged down to take the photo. Henrietta's date is left sitting by himself. When we said, Come on, bring him on over, too, what's his name? Henrietta's response was one for the books, going down in family memory as a one-liner that could always make us crack up. In a voice that was perhaps the most high-pitched, nasal, annoying one I'd ever heard, she said basically no, that was OK, he didn't have to join them, adding (and I quote verbatim here): "A couple more nights is all I want." Was it loud enough for him to hear? Or maybe at this point he wasn't actually sitting at the table and had excused himself to find the toilet, which is apparently where he was headed in his relationship anyway? I couldn't say, but I know my eyes must've widened, and my mom and I were giving soundless signals to each other and trying not to laugh at the outrageousness of her statement, given outright like that to a table full of strangers. For years I kept the resulting photo. It was the only one I had of our friends, who themselves were doomed for splitsville a few years later, and it was a picture that perfectly captured the evening at Fran O'Brien's: the exposed brick rising up to chair-rail height behind us, the (Aegean?) blue backdrop above; the six of us, including Henrietta, who leaned in tight at one side, her curtain of straight, chin-length brown hair swinging (much like she herself) out and away from her face with its squinty closed eyes; all of us smiling, broadly, knowing that it was one fleeting moment of light-hearted fun we wanted to capture on film and keep forever—despite the fact that nothing in the photo would last. Not even the walls around us.


  1. I was a waiter @ Fran's in the 80's. It was my first job in L.A. transplanted from Maryland.

    What a place.....Thanks for the memories Allison.

    Amazingly, 25 years later, I have connected with my old co-workers through FaceBook. Fran's lives on.....

  2. Thanks for the memories.....I waited tables @ Fran's for 3 years in the 80's. Full of characters and good times. I was stunned to find this story. Many Thanks....