West Hollywood’s long-awaited cabaret restaurant is neither a cabaret nor much of a restaurant. And like the dreams of stardom that its piano bar fosters, this venue’s own road to greatness in WeHo may be just as long and winding.
Don’t Tell Mama opened in New York City 30 years ago. The East Coast mothership offers cabaret nightly, but West Hollywood’s outpost has not yet sought expansion of its conditional use permit to allow cabaret, opting to take things slow. Also, Ryan O’Connor, Don’t Tell Mama’s artistic director, resigned less than a month after February’s big opening night on Santa Monica Boulevard. He cited “artistic differences” with the owners and management. But the show must go on, and so it has.
DTMLA sans cabaret more closely resembles another Manhattan haunt, Brandy’s Piano Bar, where a mix of pop/rock wannabes and Broadway gypsies alike come to flex their pipes.
But when I enter Don’t Tell Mama one Friday night, my focus is on the food. Standing at the door, the noise level is mind-numbing. A bar stretches down the center of a long sparsely decorated room. Patrons jostle at the bar and yell into each other’s ears to be heard over a young male pianist singing a rollicking version of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” from somewhere in the back.
I catch a glimpse of a spotlight glinting off a boom mic, the performer’s head barely visible above the crowd seated around him. The noise level rises as sections of the clearly inebriated clientele parrot the singer as he belts the tune’s familiar, falsetto refrain of “Ben-nay! Ben-nay! Ben-nay!”
The hostess whisks me to the quieter dining area set up behind the bar with comfortable café chairs and tables with white linens on black tablecloths. All of this beneath bright small stage lights. French cabaret posters line the walls. I order a drink and it’s alarmingly generous. This goes a long way in demystifying the noise level.
The waiter suggests starting with guacamole, but he shouldn’t have. It’s the consistency of mousse, the purée robbing each garden ingredient of its identity. Also, the dish is served with taro chips instead of tortilla chips. I suspect this to be an ill-conceived attempt by a New York-based establishment to placate Californians. Overthinking Mexican food is never a good idea.
Wait, amend that. Underthinking it is bad, too. Take the ambitious disaster that is the Mexican Shrimp Cocktail with Avocado, Cucumbers, Horseradish and Tomatillo Sauce ($15). The jumbo shrimp are fresh, but no amount of vigilance on my part can make the accompanying soupy sauce adhere to the shrimp in any way. I end up attacking the sauce separately with a spoon. It is as thin as tomato juice and “sabor” free. I shrug. Thankfully, these were the only two “Mexican” offerings. The rest of the options on the dining room menu are American stand-bys: burgers, fish, chicken and steak.
I turn my attention to a drag queen posing gratefully for pictures in the corner of the room, and I listen to music pouring in from the bar. The drink has loosened me up. I quit the table long enough to throw a tip in the piano man’s jar, and I ask him a few questions before I request Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).” His name is Zak, and he was picked from DTM’s first round of local auditions. His rendition of the tune is solid, his voice strong and his keyboard work nimble.
Returning to my table I dig into Braised Beef Shortribs, Horseradish Parsnip Puree, Gremulata and Red Wine Reduction ($26). As is everything here, it is beautifully plated, but it lacks the technical proficiency that would allow some of the ingredients of that optimistic recipe to pop. Disillusioned, I feel thankful at least that I didn’t opt for one of the pricey steaks on the menu.
A reverent hush has come over the crowd at the piano bar. Pip from NBC’s “The Voice” (2nd season, Team Adam) is slaying “Georgia on My Mind” with the kind of vocal work that chills the spine.
On a hunch, I wrap up dinner and move to the piano bar and order a few things from its separate menu. The Kobe Sliders with Tzatziki and Crispy Onions ($15) are overpriced, but the cucumber sauce is an intriguing touch. Same goes for the Duck Tacos with Scallion, Apples, Tomatillo and Radish ($13) – too much for what they are, but juicy, flavorful and the best thing I’ve eaten.
The big drinks are hitting me now and I begin to sway with the music. And though the service there was flawless, I vow to stay out of the restaurant from now on, deciding it best to dive into the chaos by the piano bar, eating only from its menu and only if I’m going to fall over.
As the piano man vamps ironically with “Flight of the Bumblebee” I relax, convinced I have unlocked the secret of how to enjoy a Friday night at Don’t Tell Mama.
8279 Santa Monica Blvd., between Sweetzer and Harper