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American fare for British palates. Bob Payton takes pizza, ribs, and pecan pie to London and beyond

BOB PAYTON likes to say he introduced deep-dish pizza to England, and that he taught the English how to eat it with a knife and fork. His claim covers a lot of territory. But no one can doubt the man's obvious missionary zeal when it comes to bringing American food to foreign shores. In little more than eight years, he has opened nine restaurants -- three Chicago Pizza Pie Factory restaurants, four Henry J. Bean's, the Chicago Rib Shack, and the Payton Plaice restaurant in London -- with branches in Paris; Barcelona, Spain; and Aberdeen, Scotland.

His staged ``New England'' seafood place with lobster pots and fish nets at Payton Plaice is ``intentionally tacky nautical.'' One wall is called the ``whaling wall,'' with the plume from the ship HMS Prince of Wales, harpoons, and pictures of whaling ships. ``Moby Dick,'' ``Jaws,'' and ``Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea'' out-takes are on the ``telly.'' Background music has the sounds of gulls, mating whales, and the sea.

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A former Chicago advertising executive, Mr. Payton recently described these trappings to a reporter, after speaking on the emergence of American restaurants in Europe to the Pillsbury-Orlando Sentinel seminar here, outlining for more than 100 food writers a plan he hoped would change the European image of Americans as eating nothing but burgers and hot dogs. Payton says he became fascinated with the idea of becoming a transoceanic purveyor of barbecued spareribs and chicken, cheesecake and carrot cake, and a long list of his favorite American foods.

He opened his first restaurant, the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory in London, in 1977. Then, having proselytized for deep-dish pizza, which he calls a knife-and-fork experience, he brought the English his favorite finger food, barbecued spareribs, when he opened the Chicago Rib Shack in London, offering Chicago-style barbecued baby back ribs, barbecued chicken, barbecued beef sandwiches, onion rings in a loaf, and potato skins stuffed with cheese and bacon bits. Desserts are as American as cheesecake, pecan pie, and ice cream.

The first Pizza Pie Factory was on Crown Passage, an alley in St. James's, not far from Buckingham Palace. The Duchess of Kent came in, and ladies in waiting would come over to pick up pizza to carry back for teatime, he says.

Now moved to a Mayfair location at 17 Hanover Square, the restaurant promises diners a total Chicago experience, full of street signs, George Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra posters, a proclamation from then-Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne naming Payton Pizza Day, films of the Chicago Bears and Chicago Cubs games, 1930s Chicago Tribune newspapers papering one whole wall area, and music from Chicago radio stations.

The menu features Chicago-style pizza with cheese and choice of sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, anchovies, and onions in regular and large sizes. A large pizza with everything on it amply serves four and sells for $17.50. Other foods are stuffed mushrooms and homemade banana and chocolate cheesecakes.

The complete title of Payton's four Henry J. Bean restaurants is a mouthful: Henry J. Bean's But His Friends All Call Him Hank Bar and Grill. They bring a taste of Chicago's Rush Street to London, with a menu including burgers, chicken, chili, nachos, potato skins, and French onion soup.

In regard to the restaurateur's latest venture, ``the name Payton's Plaice (a k a The Chicago Seafood Supply Company) was something I couldn't resist when I thought about opening a seafood restaurant,'' he says. ``It's London's first real American seafood restaurant serving traditional English fish and chips as well as some traditional, well-known seafood dishes from the United States,'' Payton maintains.

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Plaice and monkfish are on the menu along with blackened whitefish in the style of K-Paul's in New Orleans, frogs' legs inspired by Phil Schmidt's in Hammond, Ind., and crab claws, the way Payton likes them in Miami, where he grew up.

``English families like our food,'' says Payton. ``It's great to see three generations eating food they didn't know anything about just a year ago. They say they like American service -- the cheerful attitude of our young waiters.''

But, he adds, ``the English are different. When they come into a restaurant they just have to have three courses. They can't enjoy a meal without their `starter.' So I give them a starter. We serve stuffed mushrooms, and that pleases. But you won't find any tofutti dogs or fancy things in my restaurants. We just have good old plain food.

``There's nobody likes eating in my restaurants any more than I do,'' he says.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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