FILLMORE – An Italian dinner house is doing brisk business on the showroom floor at William L. Morris Chevrolet, where car shoppers are tempted with chicken parmigiana as they kick the tires of new cars.
Squinting in candlelight to examine window sticker prices, guests find gleaming chrome is a dazzling appetizer.
“What a great idea! This is so cute,” Judy Watkins, 53, an Italian chef who lives in Cathedral City and recently visited Chef Franco’s.
The idea of a showroom/Italian restaurant combination was hatched by 71-year-old dealership owner Chappy Morris Sr., who now regrets naming it Chef Franco’s.
“I should have called it The Dealership,” Morris said.
The chicken parmigiana is $7.95 and nothing on the menu costs more than $15.95 – that’s the fully loaded veal parmigiana. And, of course, there’s bow-tie pasta.
It’s the ultimate Italo-automotive dining experience. Prospective buyers can open the door of a $25,000 Monte Carlo and be treated to the comingled fragrance of leather and garlic.
At 5 p.m. daily, the showroom lights are dimmed and piano music kicks through speakers as guests are ushered to tables covered with red-checkered cloths and flickering candles. Chef Franco Onorato also does his thing, chatting up the chardonnay and marinara.
“In Southern California, it’s a natural. People here love their cars,” Onorato said of the food-and-auto marriage.
Morris and Onorato believe the showroom/restaurant combo is unique.
“I don’t know of any other, do you?” Morris said. “People are buying cars while they’re eating.”
When the downtown dealership was wrecked in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Morris drew up plans for a grand new facility a block away on Highway 126 and included a full professional kitchen.
The idea was to serve breakfast and lunch while customers waited for car servicing – Mr. Goodlunch was the working name.
Enter Onorato. He was left jobless with the closing of Santa Paula’s Glen Tavern Inn and showed up at Morris’ doorstep proposing a nighttime Italian bistro.
“This guy shows up,” Morris recalled. “He was from Italy and he bought his first car in America from us. He wanted to open a restaurant here and I said I’d hire him. I thought I could turn him into a car salesman.”
“I said, ‘Now Franco, I don’t have a dining room,”’ Morris said. “We put some tables on the showroom floor. I apologized to people and they said, ‘What for? We like looking at the cars.”’
The result was unexpected. People come from as far away as Huntington Beach.
“The thing that is funny about it is the food is very good,” Morris said.