In matters of cuisine, just call him Dr. Fill

Empty

It's Friday morning about 10:20 a.m., and I am sitting in a booth at Kate Mantilini on Wilshire Boulevard with Dr. Phil McGraw, telling him about the junk food emporiums he simply has to visit. He's all ears, dutifully recording my suggestions into his well-worn "gizmo" (his word) under the category "FOOD."

"You've got to get a chili burger at Tommy's," I say. "It's an institution, especially late at night. And then there's Carney's, too. It's a converted train car. Great burgers and hot dogs."

"OK, terrific," Dr. Phil says. "How about barbecue? Any great joints you know about? I'll tell ya one of my favorites. You ever have the Sunset Burger at Mel's? Oh, man. It's really greasy and really good. Give me that with curly fries and a milkshake and I'm good to go."

Yes, the author of the best-seller "The Ultimate Weight Solution" has some diet secrets he doesn't share in print, like his affinity for chicken-fried steak and fried catfish. It seems you can take the man out of Texas but you can't take Texas out of the man. But after five seasons of sterling ratings for his syndicated "Dr. Phil" therapy hoe-down, he has come to terms with life in Beverly Hills -- even if the food ain't quite as tasty in these parts.

The purpose of this breakfast meeting was really just to informally chat about what it's like to be Dr. Phil now that he's no longer the new kid in town. In person, he's taller than you imagine, just as bald, and more relaxed. He wears a black T-shirt and a mild expression, evoking a nonconfrontational vibe, and has a deceptively low-fat palate (ordering the salmon platter with a bagel -- dry).

I've had issues with Dr. Phil's style in the past, finding him too often belligerent and imperious. But I nonetheless jumped at the chance to see what breaking bread would be like with a personality who has grown into such a monumentally popular brand -- and whose talk show has posted year-to-year ratings gains each season.

It's no secret Dr. Phil rubs a lot of people the wrong way despite his towering audience figures. Today, however, he's likable and charming, even as he recovers from knee surgery performed the week before that'll keep him off the tennis court for six weeks.

A few things I learned over the course of 75 minutes: He rarely watches his own show, which he admits is "just too hard for me." He almost never goes out to parties or awards extravaganzas. He thinks he's pretty easy to live with, "very low maintenance." He has empathy for both Don Imus and Alec Baldwin, following their recent public troubles. And he has no plans ever to be fitted for a toupee or shave his mustache.

"I've seen better heads on nickel beer than I've got," Dr. Phil quips, "but I can't change it now."

Dr. Phil also can't alter the fact he's almost grown to be a bit of an afterthought five years in, having burned hot from Day 1 and never cooling off. He remains a very solid second on the afternoon syndie talk circuit behind you-know-who.

"People never have to guess where I stand on an issue," he says. "I think people find it refreshing that I tell it to 'em straight in this era of spin and politics and waiting to see a consensus building before jumping in. There's a real hunger for someone to just put it out there without sugarcoating it."

This much we know for sure: There is nothing wishy-washy about where Dr. Phil stands on the cheeseburger issue.
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