SENSES are on high alert during a visit to Kate Mantilini restaurant. Most captivating are sights of flames whooshing, sounds of sauces sizzling, and smells of pesto, olive oil, and herbs wafting. But there's more: textures for the hands (weird geometric doorknobs and coat racks), feet (stone-tile floor), derriere (eel-skin seats), and eyes (smooth padauk wood).
By day, a skylight tracks passage of the sun. By night, the blackened ceiling becomes a constellated sky.
Not just a restaurant or even a hip aesthetic experience, this frescoed, and sculpture-adorned eatery is nothing less than a cultural statement on its town, say architects and critics.
This futuristic ``food hall'' - in the words of owners Harry and Marilyn Lewis - is a converted bank building that has been called ``the most dramatic-looking eating place in town'' by one local critic.
Now in its ninth year of operation, Kate Mantilini restaurant has become one of the most visited and photographed restaurants in Los Angeles and won several architectural awards.
``It's the place for great food and great atmosphere 'round the clock in Beverly Hills,'' says actor Charlie Sheen from his regular perch at Mantilini's 80-ft. counter. ``It's unique, classic, and comfortable all at once.''
As such, the high-ceilinged, street-front temple of wood, glass, and cement has become a starting point for discussions about restaurant design. As all restaurateurs know, before the menu, the restaurant itself must come into being. There are a thousand weddings of the aesthetic and practical that must be consummated before that total restaurant-going experience can be brought to expression.
Those who ignore the so-called ``non-gastric'' considerations do so at their peril.
Besides the grander design choices of materials, space configuration, and style elements, there are the mundane questions of logistics: How many tables and chairs, bars, waiter stations, walkways, bathrooms, exits, entrances, and foyers? On top of these, decisions loom about lighting, music, exhaust fans, air conditioning, and acoustics.
But most important, say both owners and designing architects of Kate Mantilini, there are fundamental, even philosophical questions about social value, context, and history.
Those answers determine the details of a product. If there is a reason for the success of Mantilini, it might be the grand scheme of ideas that took precedence over mere incidentals.
``I wanted this to be a convivial, sociable space with no gimmicks, no post-modern drivel, as organized as a man's handkerchief drawer and so classic it will last into the 21st century,'' says Ms. Lewis.
Just blocks from both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Writers' Guild of America, the building site also borders a main entry to one of L.A.'s most exclusive communities.
Lewis wanted a restaurant that embraced both the area's history as an entertainment capital and its future as a thriving community where people of all stripes and bankbooks could feel equally exalted as well as comfortable.
Five years ago, the Lewises sold the Hamburger Hamlet restaurant chain for $33 million and plotted their new vision, which they named after a colorful Irish-Italian fight promoter from the 1940s who had dated Marilyn's uncle. They then began collaborating with the young, local architectural firm Morphosis.
``Paramount to us was the fact that the Lewises wanted something that was not derivative of any other style and that was, overall, a successful public space,'' recalls architect Tom Mayne. ``Everything else was dominated by this singular notion.''
Whirling from her noon perch at Mantilini's counter, Lewis proudly inventories the features she feels make Mantilini magnetic.
``One side is static,'' she says, pointing to a row of 13 booths, separated by glass from the outside street and giving the appearance of individual aquariums. ``The other is dynamic,'' she adds, pointing to a curved mural that juts out from the restaurant's kitchen side, providing a visual undulation that runs the length of Mantilini's mostly vertical space.
The in-between area consists of two parallel rows of tables flanked by aisles.
The focal point of the interior is an unnamed sculpture that could pass for anything from a moon-landing vehicle to an oversized industrial robot.
``If you look at it closely,'' says Mr. Mayne, ``you will find it is made up of fragments of every other motif in the building ... a sort of DNA of the language of the whole building.''
These elements are meant to contribute to a space that can be visited over and over without a loss of interest, Mayne says.
``On your 12th visit, you can still be noticing things you never saw before,'' he says.
As a tribute to promoter Kate Mantilini, mural painter John Wehrle painted a fragmented, Marcel DuChamp-style representation of the knockout of Tommy Hearns in a 1985 Las Vegas boxing match with Marvin Hagler. Taken from a photographic sequence in a sports magazine, the painting covers the panoramic arch and continues on the inside curved surface of the centerpiece sculpture.
According to Mayne, it is the tilting of one interior wall - modeled after a space in Florence's Uffizi Gallery - the elongated central space, and the play of sun and backlit frescoes that make the restaurant so interesting.
There is also a more public space on a recessed outdoor patio, and a private room in back with its own door, which can be rented out.
``We wanted this to be a magical place in which people would be taken over by unique details that exist nowhere else,'' Mayne says. ``From door handles to sculpture, everything has to participate.''