Three servers each celebrating 50 years at storied Los Angeles restaurant Taix

March 8, 2012 8:51 am
  • Bartender Fernando Gomez, right, and servers Jose Fragoso and Bernard Inchauspe, left, have worked for decades at the French restaurant Taix in Los Angeles, California's Echo Park neighborhood.
    Bartender Fernando Gomez, right, and servers Jose Fragoso and Bernard Inchauspe, left, have worked for decades at the French restaurant Taix in Los Angeles, California's Echo Park neighborhood.
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LOS ANGELES -- With its dim warren of dining rooms and hearty menu of ratatouille, filet mignon and duck, Taix feels more Old World than Echo Park.

The tables are stretched with white linen, and the soup is served family style, from a big bowl with a ladle. In the main dining room with its gold-plated mirrors, Edith Piaf songs are hummed by a debonair waiter.

That's Bernard Inchauspe, a 77-year-old Basque Country emigre with a velvety accent who for half a century has greeted diners with: "Hello, lovely people!"

Mr. Inchauspe is one of three men who are this year celebrating 50 years of employment at Taix, the storied restaurant on Sunset Boulevard that was built to look like a French country villa.

The others are Jose Fragoso, who works private banquets, and Fernando Gomez, the bespectacled bartender who will pour you your favorite drink before you've even had a chance to order.

All three are serious about service, with an attention to detail that can at times seem almost somber. But they love the job, which Mr. Inchauspe says brings him both pride and pleasure. He and the others work a little less these days than they once did, but none has plans to retire.

Something about Taix keeps both waiters and patrons coming back.

Steve Cooley has been dining there since he was a boy. He and his family lived in nearby Silver Lake, and the restaurant was where they marked birthdays and other special occasions. In 1964, at age 16, he won a Lion's Club speech contest there with a talk titled "Maturity -- Its Privileges and Responsibilities."

Mr. Cooley, who grew up to become the Los Angeles County district attorney, is now 64. Some years he returns to judge the annual speech contest -- still held at Taix.

Weekdays at lunch, you might spot him there, or maybe Police Chief Charlie Beck, or Sheriff Lee Baca. The restaurant has long been popular with the law-and-order crowd, as well as employees from City Hall and clergy from the Catholic diocese downtown. Nobody comes to eat light -- not when there's lamb shank, frog legs and French onion soup to be had.

If diners want to be seen, they head to the lively main room, where the booths are ample and chandeliers hang from the ornate, pressed tin ceilings. Waiters in white shirts and black bow ties waltz from table to table, starting off each meal with the careful presentation of fresh bread and a platter of chopped vegetables. Every now and then the cast of waiters brings out a cup of mousse with a candle and gives a booming rendition of "Happy Birthday."

Mr. Inchauspe has been doing this since Sam Yorty was mayor.

He started at Taix in 1962 about a month after he and his wife arrived in California from France. They had planned to work on a relative's farm outside Los Angeles, but both thirsted for something more urbane.

He learned to speak English on the job, sometimes in exchange for French lessons for patrons. (The restaurant's name, for the record, is pronounced like "tex" as opposed to "tay.")

Mr. Inchauspe also likes to dish out compliments. Women of all ages may be targeted. And those unable to finish their meals can expect a light-hearted scolding.

When, over the years, competing restaurateurs quietly offered jobs elsewhere, he always declined. Taix is his second home, he says. And its staff and customers are his second family.

By that logic, longtime regular Hayward "Kelly" Fong, 87, would be something like a brother. For years, when Mr. Fong and his wife, Dorothy, came to Taix for a romantic dinner, they always requested Bernard.

"How is my beautiful?" the waiter would welcome Dorothy. "And how is everything?" he'd ask Kelly.

"Everything's fine," Kelly would joke. "Except for the service."

On other nights, when the Fongs had a Shrine Club meeting or another banquet to attend, they would dine in one of the restaurant's private rooms. That was where they got to know Mr. Fragoso, the 70-year-old Mexican-born banquet server who helps put on 2,000 private events at Taix each year. He always remembered Dorothy's unusual drink request: 7-Up and a splash of orange juice. He would top it with a cherry.

Dorothy is ill now, and homebound. So these days Kelly mostly goes to Taix alone.

When he sits down at the bar, there is always a tall vodka soda with a lemon twist waiting. Mr. Gomez, the bartender, has a special ability to remember what customers like. "I don't ask," explains Mr. Gomez, who came here from Argentina at age 23. "I know."

Tastes in alcohol have changed, Mr. Gomez says somewhat wistfully. The days of the two- or three-martini lunch are gone. He serves more Bloody Marys than he ever used to and can't remember the last time someone ordered a Grasshopper.

The evening clientele is different, too. On most nights now, the bar is packed with neighborhood hipsters.

To accommodate the swell of younger people who have moved into Echo Park's brick apartment buildings and bungalows over the past 15 years, the bar features a late-night menu and performances by local musicians. To appease vegetarians, the kitchen prepares its famous soups with vegetable stock instead of chicken or beef.

But the hallways are hung with reminders of the past. There's the black-and-white snapshot of a young Doris Day, being served by a waiter. And a 2010 newspaper obituary for longtime owner Raymond Taix. There are also photographs of the restaurant's original location, which opened in 1927 in a brick building downtown in what was then the French Quarter.

Kelly Fong is old enough to remember the place, which was eventually torn down through eminent domain to make way for a parking structure and a new federal building.

In the 1950s, when he was working as a county engineer nearby, he and his colleagues would often sprint there for a quick lunch. The bill, he says, was never more than $1.25.

The Taix family opened the Echo Park location in 1962 when it learned the downtown restaurant would have to close.

Last month, the restaurant had a special dinner honoring the three men who have worked there for most of their lives.

For once, though, the waiters won't be taking orders. They'll be getting served.

First Published 2012-03-07 23:29:05
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