Stepping Out

Varied menu offers entrees in several sizes for vegans, meat-and-potatoes types

LAFAYETTE – My friend Patti refuses to eat at any restaurant where the word confit appears on the menu. She sees it as code for pretentious and stuffy. It’s a shame, too, because she loves creatively prepared, delicious food – but this quirky principle often leaves her in a bind, especially in her home town in Northern California.

Patti pines for a restaurant that serves gourmet food wrapped up in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere – a place like Tutti.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t love Tutti. Whether you’re a vegetarian or a meat-and-potatoes type, whether you love children or hate them (for company, not to eat), whether you have a huge appetite or eat like a bird – Tutti’s your place.

Start with the menu: Everything – from starters to dessert – is available in three sizes: a small taste, an entrée portion, and a platter made for sharing, each priced accordingly. My dining companion and I were struck by the brilliance of this model: We didn’t have to restrict ourselves to one or two flavors, but we weren’t stuck with that not-quite-satisfied sensation you get from a tapas-only experience, either. Even the wine and beer come in small, medium and large pours, leading to the inevitable discussion of, “It’s like I really only had two glasses of wine, not four … .”

Got dietary restrictions? No problem: Icons pepper the menu to indicate numerous gluten-free and vegetarian options. So we shared the salad and butternut squash risotto before my meat-free friend tucked into her soup, a creamy soymilk broth with chunks of firm tofu and floating ribbons of carrot and parsnip “pasta,” while I gnawed on my sesame-ginger chicken wings. We each had a comfort-food follow-up: creamy mac and cheese for her, and drunken chicken – thigh meat soaked in rum and wine, served atop mashed potatoes and complemented by tangy green olives – for me.

Where’s the noise?

Then we realized what was missing: the noise of boisterous children. That’s because they’re all downstairs, behind 400 square feet of plexiglass. The walled-off kids’ section has a TV with a Wii hookup, a box full of dress-up clothes, stuffed animals, drawing supplies and more.

“There’s something for everyone from 3 to 12,” owner Connie Ruel said. “This gives (parents) a date night without having to pay a babysitter. The kids are out of earshot, but not too far out,” Ruel said. A special menu lets kids create their own quesadillas, pizzas and sundaes, so they feel like they’re part of the dining experience, too – not just a burden on it. And the best part for people who want a completely child-free evening: “If you’re sitting upstairs, you can pretty much be sure you’re not gonna have any kids in your dining room.”

Ruel has been around restaurants her whole life. Her father and uncle operated restaurants in Hollywood that were favored by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante in the ?50s, and she worked in them the whole time she was growing up.

Later, she went on to study with chefs in Switzerland before returning to Portland, Oregon, and opening a string of popular restaurants there with her then-husband and partner. But it was a series of everyday experiences – watching her Italian family pass huge platters of food; expressing gratitude for the rare moment when she could enjoy a cup of coffee and a bite to eat without worrying about how to entertain her young son – that sparked the ideas for Tutti, which opened last April.

Everybody’s welcome

“I wanted a restaurant for everyone,” she said, noting that tutti is the Italian word for everyone. “That was my intention,” and Lafayette was the perfect spot for it. “Lafayette is very family-oriented, community-oriented and very diverse.”

But Lafayette poses challenges, too. Ruel thought her multisize menu would draw a big lunch crowd, and she wouldn’t even have to turn the kitchen over for dinner. But few area businesses hold lunch meetings, she said, so now she’s open for happy hour and dinner only. “Lafayette is an early town,” too, Ruel noted, with happy hour often driving a nice 6 p.m. dinner crowd. “But we don’t get that second turn, especially this time of year.” And in Lafayette, people are unaccustomed to waiting 20 minutes for their order, she said – a problem, since her kitchen prepares food a la minute, with only fresh ingredients.

Still, my companion and I were sure Ruel was making a killing off people who love the idea of ordering a half-dozen or more small bites. Not so much. “The three-plate concept has been very educational for me,” Ruel said. “Managing it is a challenge. The food cost is very difficult to keep where it needs to be,” she said, noting that when repeat customers find something they love, they order it in larger portions, where they get more bang for their buck. “Our pricing for the kind of food we sell is low – I did that partly for the strained economy, partly to keep it attractive to families, partly because of our being in Lafayette.”

Sustainable model

She thinks that ultimately the model will be sustainable, with enough volume and staff training. It’s clear that customers love the idea.

“We’ve got people coming from the Anthem – a lot of people are 60 and 70 years old, and they don’t want to eat big honkin’ meals and take the rest home. Then you have people who just want to go have a light bite somewhere, and they don’t want a commitment to a meal, and the ambiance has afforded that as well – it’s not overdone, not underdone, not too chic.”

Too bad Patti lives in too-trendy California. But next time she comes for a visit, I’m taking her to Tutti.

Varied menu offers entrees in several sizes for vegans, meat-and-potatoes types

LAFAYETTE – My friend Patti refuses to eat at any restaurant where the word confit appears on the menu. She sees it as code for pretentious and stuffy. It’s a shame, too, because she loves creatively prepared, delicious food – but this quirky principle often leaves her in a bind, especially in her home town in Northern California.

Patti pines for a restaurant that serves gourmet food wrapped up in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere – a place like Tutti.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t love Tutti. Whether you’re a vegetarian or a meat-and-potatoes type, whether you love children or hate them (for company, not to eat), whether you have a huge appetite or eat like a bird – Tutti’s your place.

Start with the menu: Everything – from starters to dessert – is available in three sizes: a small taste, an entrée portion, and a platter made for sharing, each priced accordingly. My dining companion and I were struck by the brilliance of this model: We didn’t have to restrict ourselves to one or two flavors, but we weren’t stuck with that not-quite-satisfied sensation you get from a tapas-only experience, either. Even the wine and beer come in small, medium and large pours, leading to the inevitable discussion of, “It’s like I really only had two glasses of wine, not four … .”

Got dietary restrictions? No problem: Icons pepper the menu to indicate numerous gluten-free and vegetarian options.…