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Campanile regulars reminisce as restaurant prepares for move

Harvey Shotz has been coming to Campanile and the adjoining La Brea Bakery in Hancock Park for about 18 years. On Sunday, he sits outside the gray brick building with green trim drinking his coffee, in the same seat each week, and watches the world go by.

"I call this space where I'm sitting now my reality check," Shotz says. "...For an hour and a half or so, I sit here by myself, except for company that goes by. I read a paper, have some coffee, finish a bagel, which they grill up for me inside. You can't get it in the toaster at home to come out like it does here. And when that second cup of coffee is gone, I toodle off and my bag [of baked goods] will be waiting for me."

Like many customers this past week, Shotz learned that Campanile and La Brea Bakery would be closing in November. Opening in its place will be Republique, a bistro and bakery, under restaurant operator Bill Chait and chef Walter Manzke.

Campanile opened in 1989 and is home to the original La Brea Bakery that was founded by Nancy Silverton and her former husband Campanile chef Mark Peel. The building is owned by Peel's former father-in-law Larry Silverton.

"Someone else came in who was willing and able to offer more money," Peel says. "So they got the lease. And as much as I might feel bad about it, I recognize it's money."

There's no set last day of business for Campanile yet, Peel says. It will be sometime in November, though the lease ends Nov. 30. Peel says in the meantime he'll be busy with lots of paperwork and trying to find a facility to house his equipment and where he can do recipe testing and development.

Over the years, a weekend visit to Campanile for brunch has attracted an eclectic group of notable Angelenos: Peter O'Malley, the former owner of the L.A. Dodgers; Ernest Fleischmann, former executive director of the L.A. Philharmonic; Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; and singer Gwen Stefani, among others.

"I'm devastated, really," said Genevieve Denault, who was out for brunch Sunday with a friend who lives nearby. "This is one of our weekly sojourns. We walk from Rossmore to here, then we take the bus back. The food is always consistently good, which is wonderful."

Today, Chef Peel and his wife, Daphne Brogdon, are at Campanile with their two kids, talking to longtime customers and reminiscing. The restaurant has seen an increase in business since the official announcement this past week. People have taken to Facebook to remember good times and to praise its food.

Peel tells the story of a couple that has had the Campanile star in many of its major life events. The man and woman were each stood up by blind dates on one of the restaurant's grilled cheese Thursday nights. Each of them was sitting at the bar "both in a very grumpy mood." They started chatting and hit it off. "Fast forward," Peel says, "they got engaged here, then they had their wedding reception here, and then a year after that, at table 70 something, right next to the fountain, her water broke."

Brogdon adds: "We just got a message from somebody saying they were married here, and coming here for their anniversaries for the last 12 years...A lot of people say they can't imagine Los Angeles without this place...There's a real hole, a real sadness.'"

But Campanile will still be around, at least in some form. For the last four years, Peel has been working to help bring the restaurant to Los Angeles International Airport. The restaurant is supposed to break ground in Terminal 4 this February, he says.

"They really have gotten down the design details of the Campanile and they're re-creating it at the airport," Peel says. "We've had to redesign the menu to make it faster and simpler, because of the nature of how much time people have at the airport."

Peel says there's been a lot of work done around recipe and menu development and reconfiguring the new restaurant's service. "I like working with really strict parameters, it gives you a lot of creative impetus," Peel says.

To the restaurant's regulars, though, the closure will leave them with a gaping hole in their weekly routines.

Russ Keely has been coming to Campanile for about two decades. He sits at the corner of the bar Sunday with the remains of his plate of Trenne, a specially cooked pasta with Bolognese and kale. Keely lives in Hancock Park and has an office nearby; he'll walk over for lunch a few times during the week.

"It means a lot," Keely says. "It's just a special place...I sit here, so I can kind of watch people out there," he gestures to the larger attached dining room.

This morning, days after the news has come out, Keely has a pow-wow with some of the other regulars in the restaurant about the impending closure.

"We talked about it...and it's just sort of finding another place to go to," Keely says. "You're so stuck on one place you don't spend any time doing that. It's a real loss."

Keely, like many there, knows the bartenders and servers by name. Many have been around as long as he's been visiting. He says he hopes the new restaurant's owner will also make the place "as special as this is."

Near Keely is Joel Chen, who has been going to Campanile for Sunday brunch with his wife for nearly 15 years.

"By now we've probably [eaten] double every item on the menu...we've memorized it," Chen says with a laugh.

Then he's serious.

"It's very sad to me," Chen says. "...We love this place. We're going to see how the other one's going to do...We're going to see if it's got the same ambience and atmosphere."

Chen, who is in the antiques business, says he's trying to buy the furniture in the place. "I think it's a keepsake," Chen says.

Several tables away in the main dining room, Albert Tumpson sits with his New York Times crossword puzzle and the remains of potatoes and toast from brunch. He has been frequenting Campanile since 1993. Over the years, he's come alone, with friends, for birthdays, and with his wine group.

"It's just a lot of memories," Tumpson says. "...It feels like home. I always sit out here, if I can."

A small fountain made of blue and yellow tile bubbles pleasantly nearby. Kids and their parents talk to one another between the tables.

"It's kind of a nice laid-back atmosphere," Tumpson says. "...It's just been a long, long run."

Tumpson says he is also a fan of chef Manzke and is interested in seeing what Manzke will do with Republique when it opens in Campanile's space.

"I'll probably come here," Tumpson says. "But it won't be the same. This is like home here, everybody knows you, like Cheers. Everybody knows your name...I don't know if I'm going to be able to get out to the airport and have dinner. But I have a feeling at some point it will be back."

For Peel, personally, it's the end of an era — or at least a quarter of a century — dedicated to the creation of a restaurant. He and his former wife, Silverton, started the restaurant 23 years ago. Back then they lived in a small apartment on the third floor of the building.

Peel says he will make the best of the change. He hopes to do a closing party and also something for the alumni of the place; he's in the process of compiling a list.

"I'm not going to rush into anything," Peel says. "I’m going to take some time and enjoy the kids. My entire life, I have a daughter who's about to turn 30, I never saw them at night. I was just saying the other day, the few nights that I have been home and I try to put them to bed, I say, 'Man this is hard work.'"

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).