Nestled in a dimly lit restaurant in downtown Manhattan Beach, Ron Guidone and his daughter, Talia, are tossing memories back and forth across the table, smiling as they sip on wine and tuck into decadent crabcakes.
Talia was just 6 months old when Guidone opened his California Italian restaurant, named after his daughter, in 1977. Now she's Talia Frederick, an interior designer with a husband and two children of her own.
"I remember the main chef was this giant man with big biceps in this tiny kitchen," she says, laughing. "He would put me on his bicep and do curls and spray whipped cream in my mouth."
"You began seating people for Sunday brunch when you were ... ," Ron begins.
Soon, two couples breeze by the floor-to-ceiling windows and into the restaurant, the women squealing with excitement at the sight of Guidone and Frederick. One woman's expression turns somber as she recalls the big news: Talia's will be closing its doors after 36 years.
It wasn't a decision Guidone came to lightly. Plenty of people over the years had offered to buy the Manhattan Avenue hotspot, located on one of the most desirable streets in one of the most desirable towns in the country, the ocean just a glance away.
But now seemed like the right time for Guidone to move on. He has embarked on a new endeavor - a chain of upscale hamburger restaurants called Eureka, which he opened with his son-in-law, Talia's husband, Paul. Guidone, 71, will continue to own Mangiamo Ristorante & Bar, which he opened in 1984 also in downtown Manhattan Beach, and the more popular dishes at Talia's will move over to the Mangiamo menu.
Longtime customers say they'll miss the cozy, romantic ambience only Talia's could offer, with its intimate seating, dim lighting, mahogany accents and large chandelier made with glass from Italy.
A couple deep in conversation over glasses of wine at the bar tell Guidone and Frederick that they had their first date at Talia's. Chrissie Manson picked the restaurant, which she visits often, for the blind date, arranged by a mutual friend.
"It's a small, cool, boutique-y restaurant with great food and a great ambience," Manson says.
Although he will miss his longtime patrons, they weren't the hardest part of Guidone's decision.
"I care very much for my employees," he said. "I had chances to sell before, and I've always worried about my employees more than making money. Making sure my staff was going to be taken care of was the hardest part of selling it."
Guidone developed a culture of respect in his restaurant.
"I always told them, `The manager is no more important than the dishwasher or the bus boy. If someone doesn't show up or do their job, everybody is in trouble,"' he said. "I always insisted that everybody treat each other with the utmost respect."
The closing of Talia's seems like the end of an era for some who remember the downtown of the 1970s, spotted with candy and cookie shops, a drugstore, hardware store, dress shops and hamburger joint.
Guidone bought the property in 1972 for $70,000; it was one of the oldest houses in Manhattan Beach. He added on to the front, which is where the restaurant sits, and converted the rooms upstairs into offices.
"When I first opened, it was a neighborhood joint. There were just a few little restaurants," Guidone said. "Now, downtown is fancy-schmancy, people with a lot of money and famous chefs."
Guidone, a self-taught chef whose father worked in the food business in Italy and eventually Indiana, designed the menus - featuring old family recipes like the fettucini Alfredo or chicken Marsala and others he created himself - and trained the kitchen staff at all of his restaurants. His wife, Lisa, has been "running" the Manhattan Beach restaurants for several years, he said proudly.
Guidone's focus has always been good quality, friendly service.
And it's done him well.
Celebrities frequent his eatery, attracted to the "very quaint, private" setup. "They can be alone and not be hassled by a lot of people," he said.
One day, Guidone got a call from Oscar winner Francis Ford Coppola's mother, who had eaten at the restaurant.
"She called and asked how I got the name Talia. I told her I went to see the movie `The Godfather' and it was in the end credits," he said. "She said that was her daughter."
Soon, he got a call from actress Talia Shire, Coppola's sister, who sent a pink satin equestrian jacket with "Talia" sewn on the back to Guidone as a gift for his daughter.
"It's been a real adventure," Guidone said. "Thirty-six years is a long time."
Guidone plans to close the doors the weekend after Valentine's Day. Restaurateur Mike Simms and his partners, who co-own Simmzy's, Tin Roof Bistro and The Kettle, will take over the space and plan to open a new restaurant, Guidone said.
Frederick said Talia's is closing at the best time.
"It's good to end on top while people still have the same strong feelings about the place," she said.
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