In L.A., the Place Where the Elite Meet to Eat Cheap Is Patrick's Roadhouse, Bill Fischler's Celebrity Fry-for-All

updated 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Over at Patrick's Roadhouse the owner, Bill Fischler, is discussing the menu with his chef—within earshot of every customer in the place.

"Wanda, this gentleman says his avocado is cold."

"Avocados are supposed to be cold. How would he like it?"

"If he doesn't want it cold, perhaps 'hot' is the answer, since it is on top of a hot omelet."

"Yes, your Majesty. The customer is always right. It will be hot."

"Thank you, darling."

Patrick's, situated by the blue Pacific where Santa Monica Canyon meets the Pacific Coast Highway, has been California chic since 1984. So what if it lacks some of the usual qualities you'd expect in a successful restaurant—charm, for instance, or the quiet professionalism of well-trained waiters. "You want food to go? Step to the window underneath the sign saying 'Food to Go.' Get it? I paid $180 for that sign; let's use it," Fischler good-naturedly snaps at a customer.

Perhaps, you say, Patrick's is a triumph of the designer's art, a symphony of good taste, pastel blending discreetly into tasteful pastel. Alas, no. Patrick's is a horror show of garish green paint ("Patrick's green," Fischler grandly calls it), relieved only by huge white shamrocks painted outside and in the four booths within. For further ambience there is the randomly chosen clutter of knickknacks—the preserved baby shark on the mantel, the Western saddle hanging on the wall by the stairs and the extensive collection of bullhorns. Besides that, most of the mugs are plastic and the napkins are paper.

Then there's the music. It's not that the jukebox is bad—it features a mixture of show tunes, Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra and Sophie Tucker—it's just that it's very loud. Fischler likes it like that. "If people have to talk real loud to be heard, they think they're having a good time," he says, shouting to make himself heard over the brassy blare of David Rose's "The Stripper." Fischler's point is well-taken; there are plenty of fashionable night spots where noise is the principal attraction. But Patrick's Roadhouse isn't a night spot. It's noisy from 8 a.m., when it opens for breakfast, all the way through to 6 p.m., when it closes.

Patrick's doesn't serve liquor, but it does serve hamburgers and hot dogs, clam chowder and banana cream pie. The most expensive item on the menu (steak and eggs) costs $7.25. Amid the noise, and Fischler's amiable insults, there is a faithful clientele whose diversity is reflected in the parking lot—everything from dented pickup trucks to Rolls-Royces.

Inside, Arnold Schwarzenegger has his own table, where he dines on his favorite Bauernfrühstück, the farmer's breakfast of potatoes, ham, sausage, peppers, onions and hot seasonings. "Arnold comes here for all his interviews," boasts Fischler. "He sits right here and smokes one of those big, stinky cigars, and I don't say a thing to him about it." Fischler is protective of the Schwarzenegger table, shooing other customers away from it, even when Arnold isn't there. ("You never know when he's going to muscle his way in here," says Fischler.)

Schwarzenegger isn't the only regular. "I come here to have fun, not just breakfast," says Ted Danson. "It's our hideaway; everyone needs one." But no one would want to hide away there if the food were atrocious, and celebrity testimonials indicate it is not. "Wanda's food is great," says Ali MacGraw, who became a partner in a restaurant 10 miles up the Pacific Coast Highway last year. "Nobody knew about this place for years, and I feel kind of bad telling people about it." In this case, though, love means never having to say you're hungry.

Speaking of appetites, that commotion at the door turns out to be the grand entrance of Brigitte Nielsen, resplendent in black bicycle pants and a green-and-white football jersey. (Yep, it's No. 99, the same number worn by Mark Gastineau, Nielsen's latest beau.) Gitte's group takes over the Schwarzenegger table (he isn't there, and this time Fischler doesn't seem to mind).

Another of Fischler's favorite customers is Sean Penn, who breakfasts on the front patio. "He backs his pickup against the fence," reports Fischler, "sits there and eats and talks to his dog, which he always has with him in the back of the truck." Fischler feels protective toward Penn. "He's always so polite and quiet when he's here," he says. "I can't believe the things I've read about him."

A Los Angeles native, Patrick's 66-year-old proprietor lived in South Africa for many years before returning to the U.S. in 1962. Eight years later he bought a hot dog stand called Roy's for $2,500. (It has been expanded over the years.) A divorcé, he renamed the place after the youngest of his four children. "My dad loves to come to work every day," says Patrick, 18. "This is his life, his stage, and he's the star."

Fischler's co-star is Wanda Barbin, 73, who began cooking at Patrick's 12 years ago. The owner-chef relationship is definitely of the love-hate variety. "He's mean and hard to get along with," says Wanda, "but he needs my woman's touch. Men don't cook, they throw things together." She adds, "Besides, I like him. I tell him off, but I've got him wrapped around my finger."

—By Michael Neill, with Angela Blessing in Santa Monica

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