Popular restaurateur still serves up hospitality
By Lou Fancher
In the 1970s and early '80s, a special luncheon, dinner, birthday or holiday celebrated in the East Bay meant a trip to the Elegant Bib.
Entering the upscale Alamo restaurant, owned and operated by Mickey and Lea Adza, customers were greeted like family. There were hugs and bibs for everyone and lollipops for guests wearing red -- two lollipops if the red was on a not-easily-visible garment. Working at the Elegant Bib was more than a job: it was a kind of adoption into Mickey Adza's remarkable embrace.
He sold the restaurant in 1983 and it closed in 1984, but during its 15-year history, legends were made, careers were launched, and primarily, lifelong friendships were forged.
Some 30 years later, Adza continues to nurture the bond he created at a reunion held every other year. Former waitresses, bus boys and chefs come from as near as Moraga and as far away as Nevada to recall the memories and reflect on how Adza influenced their lives. This month, they met at Roberto's Grill and Margarita Bar (formerly Las Mantanas) in Concord.
Now 86, the Rossmoor resident who built the Elegant Bib into a gastronomic empire continues to exude undiminished charisma, charm and slogans that veer toward hokey but land as brilliance.
"Let me get you a drink," he says as people arrive. A hug is obligatory -- and the reason he says, mostly-in-earnest, "The restaurant closed because customers missed my hugs."
Adza grew up in Los Angeles, the son of an uneducated produce wholesaler who he says was "the smartest man I ever knew." His wife, Lea, who died 10 years ago, was the restaurant's bookkeeper. Together, they raised eight children in Pleasanton. From his father -- and imagining himself part Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca," part Bing Crosby in "Holiday Inn" -- he fashioned a restaurant and formed an epicure's philosophy.
"Service is as important as food. The customer is No. 1, but right next to them are the employees," he says.
One of those employees was Tom Frainier, the Elegant Bib's former bread boy who put himself through college and graduate school while earning $6 an hour (minimum wage was $1.65 at the time). Today, Frainier is president of Semifreddi's, one of the Bay Area's largest artisan wholesale bakeries.
"It was big portions, great food, music to make the whole restaurant rock," he said. "When I write the book about my business, there'll be a chapter about the Elegant Bib because Mickey was all about making you feel welcome. It wasn't like going to a restaurant, it was like going home."
Former waitress-turned-real-estate-broker Tamara Dawn remembers menu items like "Pork Chop Hill," a Korean War tribute dish she describes as "the biggest thing you ever saw, served with an American flag stuck in it" and about which she concludes, "He had a gimmick for everything. People loved it."
As a single mother with four sons in 1971, the thing she appreciated most was Mickey's compassion and V.I.P. treatment.
"He was like everybody's favorite uncle. With my own business, a lot of what I do is learned from Mickey. I'm not above my customers, I'm just the reason they're there," she says.
Opening on March 17, 1969, the restaurant served 19 people. Within six months, the Elegant Bib had its first 300-customer night. Soon, two-hour waits for all-black angus beef, specialty drinks, holiday themed-meals and superlative staff -- then-rare treats that are de facto today -- were not uncommon.
"Elegant Early Bird" guests seated before 6:15 p.m. weekdays, paid $4.25 for the full treatment: table hibachis with DIY shrimp and mushrooms to grill; soups with names like "Bloody Mary Soup," made with a shot of vodka; Romaine salad, tossed tableside by "the salad girl" and topped with a secret house blue cheese dressing. After that, Coquilles St. Jacques (scallops) blanketed with hollandaise sauce; garlic bread and wine; one of six entrees; and a snifter of 10-year-old brandy or ambermint or a sundae for diners younger than 21.
Arriving later, there were "The Magic Dragons, Puff'd & Stuff'd" (prawns crammed with crab and shrimp, $7.95) or "Adam's Legacy" (a cut-and-a-half of prime rib, $10.95) -- among 45 entrees served with "Super Spud" potatoes, a "perfect ending" from "The Yum-Yum Tray" of desserts ($0.95) or an "Original Drunk'n Dessert" (Orange liqueur over ice cream or shortcake, $1.35).
One year, preparing for April 15 tax day, Adza saved up prime rib bones for months. Advertising a "Bones, Beans, Beer and Bikini fashion show" dinner, the restaurant had 400 customers, spending their precious post-tax dollars.
Tina Corcorran, one of Adza's daughters, met her husband, Patrick, while she was working as assistant manager. Now living in Moraga, they frequently meet people who remember dining at the Elegant Bib.
"If you had a special day, the whole room became involved, singing and celebrating," she recalls.
Her husband, then a busboy and now a pilot with Southwest, says, "We didn't just serve, we had fun. But it was Mickey, that's what people returned for."
They also returned for the free pour (direct from the bottle) drinks for 75 cents, a rack of lamb called "Mary's Pampered Pet" and a triple martini in a brandy snifter. Adza offered a bag of peanuts for anyone finishing one; a free bus ride home for the few who could ingest two.
"If you don't get the people in, you don't survive," Adza says.