Ignoring the culinary trends of the past half century, Vito Restaurant offers the chance to enjoy the luxury of a different era

By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)

Leather booths, candlelight and engraved mirrors help Vito Restaurant maintain a 1960s zeitgeist

Leather booths, candlelight and engraved mirrors help Vito Restaurant maintain a 1960s zeitgeist

Look at pictures of formal restaurants in the 1960s and you see a distinct and particular style: A background of dim light and chandeliers. The flickering of candles on starched tablecloths reflected in engraved mirrors. Servers in tuxedos making salads and flambé dishes tableside, creating an effect of grandeur that awes diners clad in suits and cocktail dresses.

They don’t make restaurants like that anymore, but you can still experience unapologetically retro dining. A few of the classic restaurants are still serving, and though customers are now wearing jeans and open collars, the majestic style is unabated.

Vito Restaurant has been in business in Santa Monica’s Ocean Park neighborhood for only 34 years, but the place was more than a bit old-fashioned the day it opened. You will look in vain on their menu for pizzas, for rustic dishes like panazella salad or charred octopus, for any sign that it’s the 21st century. What you will find are the classics — spaghetti carbonara, veal marsala, filet mignon with brandy sauce. This is mid-century grand cuisine, and the surroundings match it perfectly. Servers in black suits, starched shirts and bow ties glide from table to table, and the classic jazz in the background is at low volume.

A server who came to our table to offer wine revealed one downside of the old-fashioned style: though they offer wine by the glass, there is no wine list for diners. There are several choices, and though the servers know which grape varietal is used, they don’t know or don’t share the price of the wine or who produced it. This is a curious decision by a restaurant that has more than 1,000 bottles on their master list, and one I think they should revisit.

I was much happier with the Caesar salad made tableside, which was presented with all the flair one could hope for. It’s only offered as a portion for two — and a rather substantial one at that, so we couldn’t try other starters — but watching the show of creating it had an old-fashioned charm. It was tasty too, though I might have liked just a dash more garlic.

We had decided to dine Italian style, splitting a pasta course and entrée, and ordered figuring the restaurant’s signature dishes would probably be their best. Both turned out to be good moves.

For pasta, we picked spaghetti della casa: chopped prawns sautéed with shallots, flamed with cognac and tossed with pasta in a tomato cream sauce. It was delicious, the flamed alcohol adding smoky sweetness and depth to the sauce. We were offered Parmesan — a heresy by standards of Italian gastronomy, in which shrimp and parmesan don’t go together. We declined because the balance of flavors on the plate was fine as it was.

Our next course was pollo alla Vito: pounded chicken breast sautéed with prosciutto, broccoli and mozzarella in a sherry wine sauce. The ideas were sound: The sauce was creamy, rich and slightly salty, but both the broccoli and prosciutto were cut too large. Some steamed vegetables were offered on the side (a zucchini and carrot medley and excellent sautéed cabbage), making for a nicely varied plate.

House-made tiramisu and cannoli were offered for dessert, and we decided on the tiramisu. That rich dessert was pushed near its limit — a pillow of mascarpone cheese atop a sliver of cake, topped with abundant chocolate drizzles and powdered espresso, with a tower of whipped cream on the side and some mandarin oranges for garnish. It was a fittingly over-the-top end to the meal.

Our dinner for two with three glasses of mystery wine ran $123, of which $84 was food. That’s more expensive than anything else in this area, which is otherwise wall-to-wall with modest breakfast and lunch spots catering to local businesspeople. Though those restaurants thrive based on proximity and speed, Vito offers something entirely different — a chance to ignore the dining trends of the last half century and enjoy the luxury of another era.

Vito Restaurant is open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. The restaurant opens daily for dinner at 5 p.m., closing at 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and at 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Full bar; corkage $18. Valet parking in rear. Wheelchair access OK. Children welcome. Menu online. Reservations recommended.

Vito Restaurant, 2807 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 450-4999 vitorestaurant.com