In the restaurant world, being called "a regular" is a badge of honor. Phil Gittelman has been eating at Hugo's in West Hollywood almost every day for 32 years. He is so fond of the restaurant, which opened in 1980, that he is more than a customer; he's become a living time capsule for the place, a faithful repository of its stories, characters and food.
The 75-year-old L.A. native lives half a block away from the restaurant, which is at Santa Monica Boulevard and Kings Road. The staff has affectionately dubbed him "Mr. G," and the owners have given him an honorary key to the front door. He has seen celebrities including David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and Paul Newman walk through that door, and he has watched the menu evolve with its clientele from "veal to vegan." He has also cheered on head chef Nabor Diaz as he worked his way up from a dishwasher 25 years ago.
Because the specials on the lengthy menu regularly change, Gittelman says he never gets bored. He hasn't tried every item, but he knows tasty details about most of them ("The Cuban sandwich is quite a piece of work — I eat it on a spinach wrap"; "As they grill the chicken, the sauce in the pan becomes the dressing for the salad."). He also taught the barista to make a "Mr. G latte," which is made by steaming the espresso and the milk together, instead of just the milk.
"He has always been extremely pleasant and happy, and never has an unkind word," says Hugo's co-owner Tom Kaplan. "In many ways very much like my father was."
Kaplan's father, Terry, bought Hugo's, which was a butcher shop, in 1979 from its namesake's widow. Terry was a fifth-generation butcher and World War II veteran who fought in both the Battle of the Bulge and the invasion of Normandy. He was also a talented artist. Gittelman points out one of his detailed charcoal drawings, which is framed above Gittelman's favorite booth, a large circular one in the corner of the room.
At noon on a recent Wednesday the restaurant is packed with casual diners, digging into an aromatic variety of menu items. Vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free choices are many and clearly marked. That day the dessert special is vegan, gluten-free churros that are so light and delicate it seems they might float off the plate. If only the rich chocolate dipping sauce were in the air.
Gittelman is particularly fond of a dish called Pasta Mama, a generous tangle of house-made pasta coated with fresh garlic, eggs, parsley and Parmesan cheese, but he orders the ginger-tamari salad with grilled tofu instead.
"I don't eat much meat; I intend to be around for a long time," says Gittelman, who is tall and bald with tanned skin and a slightly studious demeanor. He wears rose-colored glasses, khaki pants and a blue linen short-sleeved shirt over a long-sleeved white cotton shirt. Staff members in the sunny dining room wave and smile as he passes, as do a number of customers.
Gittelman is a personal manager, and his clients include Craig T. Nelson and Tony Dow (who played Wally Cleaver on "Leave It to Beaver"). But before that he worked his share of service jobs in both the front and the back of the house at places with nostalgia-inducing mid-20th century names like Diamond Jim's and Coffee Dan's. His father owned a produce company, Dell Produce, which used the slogan, "If it grows, we have it."
Food is never far from Gittelman's mind, which is why he chose a restaurant as his second home. In another life, he says, he would be a restaurant critic, and up until recently his annual holiday cards were all food-themed, featuring a picture of him and clever slogans like "Gulp Fiction." On his most recent birthday his brother and two sisters joined him for a celebratory meal at Hugo's.
"They were very sweet; they gave us whatever we wanted," Gittelman says of the staff.
Hugo's is one of three restaurants at which Gittelman has a house account. He proudly displays his card, which looks a bit like a credit card with the Hugo's logo. He holds similar, and similarly worn, cards to Musso & Frank and Greenblatt's Deli. The restaurants no longer give out cards like those, and Gittelman figures he might be among the rare few who have them.
"In this day and age, it's just not done anymore," he says of the house accounts.
Gittelman too is a rare breed, a constant in a sea of change and a reminder that when it comes to restaurants, community is as important as food.
"Phil knows everybody and everybody knows Phil," says Diaz. "He knows people's names who I don't even know. He even has a key to this place. Did he mention that?"Copyright © 2015, CT Now