It's showtime at restaurants, and chefs serve as the stars

The Baltimore Sun

The chef reaches up, pulls down a ticket, shouts out an order, spins around and inspects a couple of plates going out, wiping the edges with a towel. A loud clatter of dishes, a line cook barks back and another order goes out. This is the Foundry on Melrose, Eric Greenspan's hot new restaurant in Los Angeles. It's hectic and tense and noisy, but we're not in the kitchen - we're in the dining room.

Though the new spot already has become known as a place to be entertained - there's live music six days a week - the real show is chef Greenspan himself. Instead of standing on the kitchen side of the traditional "pass" (the place where cooks pass plated dishes to the waiters), Greenspan has jumped the counter and "expedites" orders from the dining-room side. And it's quite a performance.

Especially for the diners who are seated at the half-dozen tables directly across from the pass. The storefront restaurant is narrow, so Greenspan, with his in-your-face style, is awfully up-close and personal.

A "bar chef" also has broken out at Fraiche, a new restaurant in Culver City, Calif., landing in the dining room, where he flambes drinks not tableside, but tabletop. At Ketchup, a slick Sunset Strip hamburger joint, a roving bartender rolls up her cart to mix cocktails tableside. And at Mozza, also in Los Angeles, the open-kitchen concept has gone so intimate that diners at the bar can feel the heat of the pizza oven while they watch chef Nancy Silverton at work. It's all so close those diners can literally grab ingredients and gobble them up.

Tableside service performed by waiters is certainly nothing new. Once upon a time, it was reserved for fancy, old-style Continental or French restaurants.

But now, since chefs and cooking have been so glamorized and televised, the kitchen is spilling out into the dining room. It's as if the concept of the chef's table has taken over the whole restaurant.

For diners, it's a great window onto the way restaurant kitchens really work. Fun and entertaining, yes, but it also can be kind of startling - as when you're tucking into your spot prawns with saffron aioli, deep into conversation, and a menacing growl from chef to waiter breaks the bubble of your dining experience. Or when your table is suddenly the center of attention, which might happen at Fraiche. Order a Prosecco Fruit Flambe, and Albert Trummer, who calls himself a "bar chef," might leave his post behind the bar and bounce into the dining room with armfuls of equipment and glassware, plop it all down right on your table and start concocting.

It won't be long before the show extends beyond the dining room: Soon live streaming video and audio during service will be accessible on the Foundry's Web site.

Leslie Brenner and Betty Hallock write for the Los Angeles Times.

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