In the late 1970s, I used to see Tony Bill eating dinner around Los Angeles (sometimes alone) in exactly the kinds of restaurants I most enjoyed myself (sometimes alone): restaurants like Musso's in Hollywood, The Grill in Beverly Hills, and the West Beach Café in Venice—casual, predominantly American places, always with a sense of style. I wasn't too surprised, then, that when the young actor/producer/director opened his own Venice restaurant, 72 Market St., in 1983 (in partnership with Dudley Moore and other notables), it was the same type of establishment. It looked great (with an interior by Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi of Morphosis); it drew a smart, attractive, animated clientele; and it had a lively bar, an imaginative and reasonably priced wine list, and a chef (Leonard Schwartz) who produced abundant, unpretentious, and delicious food—including irresistible ceviche, meat loaf, and chili, as well as plenty of more refined specialties.
The restaurant thrived for almost a decade—but by the early '90s it seemed to have lost momentum (and had definitely lost chef Schwartz, who had left to run his own restaurant). Once-bustling mealtimes were sometimes positively sepulchral; the food was up and down. Then, in late 1993, a couple of 72 Market regulars (and investors), financier Roy Doumani and his wife, Carol, took an interest in the running of the place and hired Roland Gibert as chef. Gibert wasn't the obvious choice—he's French, with decades of French experience (at Ambassade d'Auvergne in Paris and then Bernard's and his own Tulipe in L.A.)—but he was apparently the right one. He brought a new level of sophistication to the menu but also had the good sense to leave the old standards alone or to improve them without altering their basic homey goodness. When I dined at 72 Market late last year, it was as animated as it had ever been, and the food—both new and old—was again superb.
Some of the animation, and plenty of the food, may be found in 72 Market St. Dishes It Out!: A Collection of Recipes and Portraits from a Classic Venice Restaurant—just out from Carol Doumani's company, Wave Publishing. With this volume, Gibert, working with his head chef, Robert Lia, has come up with a highly original, entertaining, and usable cookbook. It's fun to look at, to begin with: The recipe pages are cool and clean (design is credited to Sargent & Berman), some brightened with thumbnail portraits of dishes. Interleaved with the recipes are portraits of another kind: alternately thoughtful, charming, and amiably loopy food-themed studies, by various photographers (Pablo Aguilar's are especially appealing), of people associated with the restaurant, from principals Bill and Moore and chefs Gibert and Lia (and Schwartz) to customers like wine merchant Steve Wallace, actor Seymour Cassel, and artist Robert Graham. These give the book an intimate, convivial feel that echoes the confident insouciance of the restaurant itself.
As for the recipes—72 in number—Gibert has included the aforementioned ceviche, meat loaf, and chili, among other restaurant favorites, but also offers appealing sprouts from his traditional French roots (cod fritters with rouille, swiss chard gnocchi with sage butter, chicken with caramelized apples and calvados) and a number of more refined dishes—like a refreshing Maine lobster ''napoleon'' with mango vinaigrette (there is no pastry involved), a hearty baked halibut with wild mushroom crust and lentil ragout, and an exquisite apple galette with caramel sauce. The recipe language is clear and helpful, and the results taste good. The book accomplishes the neat trick of both satisfying the reader/cook all by itself—and tempting him or her to call 72 Market for a reservation.