Dir Bob Giraldi. US 2001. 94 mins.

There is a lot of fun to be had in Bob Giraldi's Dinner Rush, an unpretentious, quintessentially New York independent film that recalls the kind of offbeat, low-budget pictures made in the 1970s and early 1980s, before independent cinema became a forceful movement or chic marketing hook. Although set in a Downtown eaterie, Dinner Rush is decidedly not an erotic food-and-sex film, which explains why it hasn't done well from its New York engagement (about $200,000 in three weeks) and is not likely to do better when it opens elsewhere. Instead, screenwriters Rick Shaughnessy and Brian Kalata opt for an intimate character study, centering on an old restaurateur (masterfully played by Danny Aiello), his relationships with his two sons (one biological, the other surrogate) and the restaurant's regular and not-so-regular customers, mostly strangers whose paths criss-cross during one endless night.

As a film, Dinner Rush is far superior to this year's addition to the sex-and-food genre: the stale, if also enjoyable, Tortilla Soup (a Latino remake of Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman), which was commercially successful. Indeed, despite its chic setting, the new film contains only one montage of the genre's obligatory scene: the frantic preparation and presentation of sensual food.

In a perfect-pitch role, Aiello plays Louis, the veteran owner of a local Italian restaurant who, along with his longtime partner, has also had a sideline in bookmaking. Devastated by the sudden murder of his partner by two mafiosi from Queens, who go by the name of Black and Blue, Louis is determined to take justice into his own hands. Hence, the film closes with an unexpectedly effective revenge that plays like a consciously low-key homage to the famous restaurant shooting scene in The Godfather.

For the most part, however, Dinner Rush feels like an Altmanesque ensemble piece about the workers and patrons of a place that has changed from a family business with an old-fashioned food to one boasting nouvelle Italian cuisine, supervised by Louis's chef-son, Udo (Ballerini). One of the running jokes is that Louis can't eat the new elegant food and has his old favourite dishes prepared by Duncan (Acevedo, who looks like the young Pacino), a good-hearted but irresponsible gambler who is always in debt.

Although Italian in origin, the restaurant reflects the new demographics of Manhattan. The cooks represent a racially diverse group that includes blacks, Asians, and Latino, and only a few Italians. Furthermore, whenever Louis goes into the kitchen, he encounters a new, unrecognisable face.

The intergenerational conflict - the reluctance of the old guard to pass on the torch to the young and ambitious breed - is only one of the subplots in a film that's dense in subtext and rich in characterizations, capturing the flavour of a hot restaurant where everybody wants to dine and, perhaps more, needs to be seen. One customer observes that celebrity-spotting in Gigino (named after Louis's nickname) has become just as important as eating.

In the course of the night we meet a bunch of New Yorkers whose goals are to score, promote their careers, vent steam - and just talk. It turns out that Udo, a handsome womaniser and ambitious restaurateur, has slept with at least three of the employees and patrons that night, with a fourth in the works. Single men and women sit at the bar while being entertained by the bartender and new couples are formed.

Despite its title, the film conveys anything but rush or speed; rather, the need to connect, to tell stories and to be listened to are far more important. Presiding over the proceedings is Louis, always sitting at the same table, observing the place and its human players, some of whom are grotesque and pretentious, from a distance with a wary, time-worn look. During the course of the evening, his Louis changes in dramatic ways, and his exit from the restaurant, which is both literal and symbolic, is one of the most satisfying and well-earned sorties seen in a film in a long time.

Technically raw (which may be a function of the budget or Giraldi's deficient skills), the picture is poorly mounted, suffering from abrupt cuts, sometimes in the midst of a sentence, and obvious intercuts between parallel actions. Dinner Rush is a film that screams for Altman's touch, with his smooth camera movement, uninterrupted long takes (a la the beginning of The Player) and overlapping dialogue - but there are other, significant rewards that compensate for its shortcomings.

Prod cos: Giraldi/Suarez Productions
US dist : Access Motion Picture Group
Int'l sales: Worldwide Entertainment
Exec prods: Phil Suarez
Prods: Louis DiGiamo, Patti Greaney
Scr: Rick Shaughnessy and Brian Kalata
Cinematographer: Tim Ives
Prod des: Andrew Bernard
Ed: Allyson C Johnson
Music: Alexander Lasarenko
Main cast: Danny Aiello, Edoardo Ballerini, Vivian Wu, Mike McGlone, Kirk Acevedo, Sandra Bernhard, Summer Phoenix, John Corbett, Polly Draper