Beverly Hills, Calif.
Sidney Poitier, Tom Cruise and the entire cast of "Friends" are all regulars, and every other patron appears to be on intimate terms with the same plastic surgeon. Thus the revelation in this pleasure den is how wonderful the food is, better even than what I remember of star chef and owner Wolfgang Puck's original Spago (now closed) in West Hollywood.
From the vast open kitchen, which is expertly guided by executive chef Lee Hefter, streams a parade of dishes -- elegant, luscious and ready for their close-ups. Diners are eased into a meal with little whimsies from the kitchen -- picture a tiny sesame-flavored cone capped with spicy tuna tartare -- before continuing on to the likes of Cantonese-style roast duck, pizza scattered with house-smoked salmon and caviar, or maybe a world-class Wiener schnitzel. Wiener schnitzel? Puck is Austrian by birth and honors his homeland with that and other childhood favorites, including beef goulash with spaetzle. If decisions are difficult, you can splurge on the mother of all tasting menus. This banquet costs $120 a person, but commences with nine treats from the kitchen before you see an actual first course.
Forgo dessert here and you'll miss out on the handiwork of one of the leading pastry chefs in the country, Sherry Yard. Her souffled pancakes and chocolate tart are dreamy role models, and the "50 vanilla bean ice cream" tastes as rich as its description.
Provided the weather cooperates (and when doesn't it in Southern California?), try to sit on the brick-paved patio, whose doors are thrown open to the dining room and whose buzz suggests an A-list cocktail party. Outside you will see two very old olive trees and a granite fountain inscribed with the same word in myriad languages: "passion." It's a mantra this worldly kitchen takes to heart.
176 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, Calif. 310-385-0880. www.wolfgangpuck.com/myrestaurants/fine_dining/home/frame.php. Dinner entrees $25 to $48.
Even from several blocks away, I can tell I'm getting close to nirvana, as the perfume of roast chicken and woodsmoke wafts from the massive brick oven at Zuni Cafe and into the surrounding streets.
Once I'm inside the airy, two-story restaurant, I feel compelled to order that signature bird. Succulent as can be, the carved pieces are scattered on a salad of country bread, pine nuts and currants and then drizzled with champagne vinaigrette -- well worth the 45 minutes it takes to prepare. But other things call to me, too. The long, copper-topped bar always tempts me with lush seafood platters, including oysters, periwinkles, crayfish and crab in season, and a glance at the tables of others nearby reminds me I'll want a plate of shaved celery, house-cured anchovies and real aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, too. And if it's lunch time, at least one person at my table has to order a hamburger. No ordinary specimen, this one is fashioned from organic chuck and kept in place with slices of aioli-slathered rosemary focaccia. The meat, the bun -- one taste of that hamburger, and it is very hard to go back to anything else.
The same can be said of the open kitchen's delicate pastas, thin-crusted pizzas and espresso granita. Who knew that coffee-flavored shaved ice had the power to transport?
Zuni Cafe began life as a Mexican outpost in 1979. You can still find a Caesar salad (a dish invented in Tijuana) on the menu, and it's perfect. Over the years, however, Zuni has morphed into the destination restaurant that it is today: a little French, a little Italian, utterly soulful. Kitchens as personal as this one always have a conscience at the helm, and in this case, it's Judy Rodgers, whose long-ago good fortune as an exchange student was to land in the home of the celebrated French chef Jean Troisgros in Roanne, near Lyon. The experience left her smitten with precise preparations, and with foods simple and pure. At Zuni, a nightly crowd of artists and socialites, tourists and foodies, are the grateful beneficiaries.
1658 Market St., San Francisco. 415-552-2522. Dinner entrees $13.50 to $27.