As much as I hate to categorize people, places and things...people, places and things inevitably fall into categories. You know, like you can look at a guy and know what his story is: "Oh yeah, he's one of those Rockabilly-guys-who-slicks-his-hair-back-and-wears-a-wifebeater-tank-top-and-cuffed-blue-jeans-and-shows-off-his-tattoos-while-driving-his-vintage-car-with-the-fuzzy-dice-hanging-from-the-rear-view-mirror." Same goes for restaurants. You can say that a restaurant is a "hole in the wall," or an"haute cuisine establishment" or a "mom and pop joint" or a "tourist trap" or a "cheap-donuts-and-Chinese-that-caters-to-blue-collar-guys" and figure out who its customers are, what makes its clock tick.
Well this restaurant threw me off. Because I wasn't really sure what its story was. Which would normally be okay, because then I'd just tell myself that the place is so unique it doesn't fit in to any category! But this place didn't not fit in in a cool, unique way. This place didn't fit in in a "its-trying-too-hard-to-fit-in-so-it's-not-working" way. Hey, is that a category? Shit, am I even making any sense?
Anyways, I first went to Tino's Italian Ristorante about 4 years ago when my coworkers and I were trying to come up with a place to eat and coincidentally found this restaurant's grand opening flyer on the windshield of every car in the office parking lot. Its address led us to a Valley Village mini mall, and we soon spotted the restaurant's sign wedged between all the others, but the restaurant was nowhere to be found...until finally, we found it literally tucked away deep in the corner of the mini mall. No storefront, no windows, just a single door leading into this...hole in the wall???
Well, you'd think, judging from its neighbors, but instead, you walk in and you find that Tino's is furnished with rustic wood tables and chairs. Gold leaf mirrors and faux paint finishes adorn its walls. Glass olive oil and vinegar decanters sit in cute wrought iron holders atop each table. Hell, they even give you a cloth napkin. So a cute Italian trattoria? Well, maybe, if it weren't for the fact that we felt like we were trapped inside a windowless box where, despite the quality furniture and decorative paintings, the low ceiling was composed of fluorescent light boxes amongst cheap acoustic ceiling tiles.
That first time we went four years ago, the guys at Tino's practically jumped up and hugged us when we walked in. They were extremely friendly, getting us seated and making sure we were comfortable and then taking our order, and then 10 minutes went by, and then another few minutes, and oooh! free bruschetta for the whole table, compliments of the chef! And then another few minutes, and several visits from our server telling us the food would be out shortly, and would we like more water or refills, and then finally, after over half an hour of waiting, our food finally arrived.
I don't remember what we ate that day, I just remember that our food was just okay. Some dishes were good, some just weren't. And the service? Well it both rocked and it sucked. It rocked because they were so friendly and gracious and they gave us free bruschetta, but it sucked because they were so slow and they kept trying to cover it up by being nice. After awhile, it gets old, like just get us our damn food already. Especially when we're the only ones in the restaurant.
OK so that was four years ago, and maybe I was being a little harsh. Tino's was new and maybe it was trying to find its bearings...I wasn't about to start interfering and making suggestions to the owner like Jerry did to Babu on Seinfeld. So when my group decided to go to Tino's for lunch the other day, part of me was bummed because I remember how odd the last experience was, but the other part of me was excited, because I was curious to see how our rookie had developed. To tell you the truth, I wasn't even aware that it was still in business.
But it was, and seemed to be flourishing. And yet nothing had changed, except for the fact that there were actually quite a few other people eating there. We walked in to find the same bizarrely claustrophobic and artificially lit yet cozily decorated interior. Our server tried to be friendly by asking each of us our names as we ordered our lunches so that she could remember who ordered what and call us by our first names, yet never bothered to use them again. In fact, when bringing us our food and drink, she had to resort to the old "Uh, who had the iced tea?" We got about three refills of their rosemary bread which we grazed on with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and once again, they brought us an amuse-bouche, this time deep fried mozzarella balls with peas, which were quite good--crisply breaded on the outside with a nice gooey cheesy interior--but still did not make up for the fact that we again had to wait over half an hour for our meals to come out.
Free doesn't always make everything better
Was the wait worth it? Not particularly. My Pollo alla Parmagiana was nothing special, just pounded, breaded chicken breast coated with marinara and mozzarella. Nothing stood out, except maybe the fact that it was a tad too salty. Its side of spaghetti marinara also lacked character...the sauce just sat there, the pasta just sat there. Everything just sat there. A little bit above bland and that's it. And you know what? That's what everyone else had to say about what they ate..."Eh, it was okay" or "It wasn't bad" or "I guess it was pretty good" was used to describe the lasagnas, chicken marsalas, and various pasta dishes around the table.
Don't just sit there...do something!
Both of my dining experiences at Tino's have made me want to slap it around and knock some sense into it. Hey, maybe it's not sense, maybe it's taste, or energy or...just knock something into it. I hate that it tries so hard to be all these things...a proper sit down restaurant, a low key hole in the wall neighborhood joint, a "get to know your name" kinda place, but can't seem to get one thing 100% right. And it bothers me that it bothers me, if that makes any sense. But I should just leave it alone, because they've managed to stay open and build up a clientele over the past four years, so obviously something worked.
Oh my God. I think I've got it. There is a category for places like Tino's. These kinds of places are called "Half-Ass Establishments" and that's exactly what they do well.
Tino's Italian Ristorante
5424 Laurel Canyon Blvd.
Valley Village, CA 91607