Going to a Hollywood restaurant can be hazardous to your psyche. Here in Los Angeles. thc experience of dining out in a “powcr” establishment-i.e., an eatery frequented by assorted celebrities, moguls, and their remaindermen-is far less an occasion of celebration and self-indulgence than one of mortification and self-abuse. Nowhere else in the caste system of American success are the self-styled high and mighty so ruthlessly shown their place and inculcated with the lessons of humility
Take Spago, Wolf gang Puck’s templc of pizza and goat cheese gastronomy astride thc Sunset Strip. The intimidation starts in the parking lot. You proudly pull up in your new BMW convertible but are immediately overwhelmed by a gleaming wall of Testarossas, Lagondas, and Cornichcs that make you feel like a high-school half-back up against the defensive line of the Chicago Bears. The valet hides your car in the back of the parking lot with the lesser Mercedeses and the Mustangs rented by the rubes from Dallas. As you walk down the steep hill to the entrance, the hovering paparazzi camped outside don’t even look up. Their sixth sense tells them You Don’t Count, which is confirmed the moment you walk through the glass doors into Puck’s beachy cabana-in-the-sky and the pert receptionist in Melrose Avenue black greets you with a blank “I’m-sorry-I-don’t-know-you” smile of condolence. You have to tell her your name, and while she scans the reservation lists, there is an enormous rumble outside, an cxplosion of son et lumière. You first think it is an earthquake, but it is only Joan Rivers and David Lec Roth with their respective entourages, arriving simultaneously. Out rushes Puck in toque blanche, out rushes his wife, Barbara Lazaroff, in sequined plumage. The kisses begin, and five minutes later the temblor subsides and the receptionist asks you to wait at the bar.
The crush of gawkers reminds you of a dressed-up version of the Spacc Mountain queue at Disneyland. You pass an cndlcss half-hour nursing your Cinzano and your deflating ego while whatever you thought you had accomplished, whatever you’re here to celebrate, is rendered nugatory by each entering superstar, each flash of bulbs, each shower of kisses. You’re glowing from having directed your first movie. Then Sydney Pollack walks in. Your book made the bottom of the Times best-seller list. But here comes Judith Krantz and your bubble bursts. You think you’re with the most beautiful woman on earth. Until Dan Aykroyd breezes in with Donna Dixon. You’re here to show your new jewels or your perfect tan. And Elizabeth Taylor arrives with George Hamilton. ln Your Face! Anything you can do they have done better. Or certainly bigger. You may have bought a chain of drugstores in the Valley, but there’s Ron Perelman, who bought Revlon. So you’ve built a $3 million house in Bel Air. Big deal. You’re still straphanging at the bar while Aaron Spelling, who’s building something that would cmbarrass Louis XIV, is getting the Sun King treatment.
ln time you’re finally seated in the middle of the L-shapred room. You’re so grateful for not being exiled to the gulag of the glassed-in Siberian terrace that you’re oblivious to the scorching heat from the famous wood-burning pizza overs at your back. You still get to see the stars sitting at their window tables overlooking the magic carpet of lights that is nocturnal LA. The stars can see you, too, but they don’t look. The only looks are from the remaindermen-the agents and junior executives who are Hollywood’s watchdogs of status-seated at the high tables of their bosses. With looks like theirs, you might as well not be there at all.
Your food comes, but you don’t bother to send back your overcooked grilled tuna. lt’s penance for your insignifìcancc, your own humble pie. You know that Sally Field’s grilled tuna is cooked pcrfectly à point, but shc’s a star and you’re not. You choke down the wonderful lemon tarte (the pastry chef is the true democrat here, you assume), pay your hundred bucks, and slink past the paparazzi and the Testarossas to your lowly $30,000 convertible. whose door the valet holds as if the car came from the Chernobly brand of Rent-a-Wreck.
Of course, any well-adjusted individual might enjoy a night at Spago by looking at it, not as a test of his or her own worth but as nothing more than watching People magazine come to life. But well-adjusted people don’t tend to work in Hollywood. There is a distinct pecking order here that changes with every weekend’s grosses, and lurking beneath every Lotusland hedonist is a closet masochist who can’t resist the siren call to go out and see exactly where he stands. Accordingly, the next night you try Mortons.
Down thc West Hollywood Hills, in the decorator-and-designer belt of Robertson Boulevard, sprawls Spago’s chief rival in the name-fame food game. Here the anxictics are the same, but the gestalt is different. At Spago, you feel as if you’re crashing an exclusive party; at Mortons, you feel as if you’re crashing a private club. A Southern California country club, to be precise. The walls are hung with Bcons, Hockneys, and Ruschas; there is a botanical garden of potted palms; and the dining room feels as if it should open out onto a pool. Nevertheless, the gray-suited maître d’ could pass for a somber investment banker And despite their tennis whites, so could the waiters, who are older than usual and as efficient as anyone on the bond desk at Salomon Brothers, and who possibly makc as much (Mortons waiters can earn upwards of six figures annually). Small wonder Ivan Boesky was a regular.
While Spago’s cuisine is whimsical fun food, Mortons’ menu is meat-and-potatoes power club fare. And although celebrities such as Brice Willis and Demi Moore may be cooing at side tables, most of the patrons are soberly dressed and also look like investment bankers. In fact, they are agency heads and studio big shots, people like CAA’s Mike Ovitz or ICM’s Ed Limato or Weintraub’s Jerry Weintraub or Warner’s Mark Canton. Mortons is a man’s world, the ideal place to take the archetypal California airhead goddess with nothing to say, because it’s simple too noisy to talk. How deals are concluded in such a din (and they are) remains a mystery, which may account for the often mystifying nature of much of Hollywood’s packaged product today. Because Mortons is essentially square (spatially, not trendily), there is no real outback. What separates the castes here is the hour-long wait at the bar, which is in the center of the room, so that who’s who can see who’s not.
Although there are other Hollywood restaurants that can make you dissatisfied with who you are, none can match Spago and Mortons for their sense of place – that is, putting you in yours. The rest of the “power” restaurants are 97-pound weaklings by comparison. Still, any self-immolator worth his matches should try Venice’s austere, white-walled West Beach Café, which serves the best ingredients in town to a crowd of celebrity artists and their celebrity patrons. Movie stars feel more at home than you will down the beach at 72 Market Street, with its Frank Gehry-style hugh tech and Dudley Moore piano. Everyone, from Bruce Springsteen to John McEnroe, loves The Ivy for its crab cakes and molasses bread. Matteo’s in West LA is the hottest ticket in town on Sunday nights to watch Old Hollywood eat Old Hoboken. The place is loaded with the likes of Lucille Ball, Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse, Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra, and Tommy Lasorda. Here the maitre d’ really plays hardball: If he doesn’t know you already, he doesn’t want to know you.
“l know we’re intimidating. but it’s not our intention,” apologizes Peter Morton. The handsomely ascetic son of a Chncago restaurateur, Morton himself has sworn off the red meat on which he buit his empire of Hard Rock Cafes, of which Mortons is the crown jewel. When the man who brought the hamburger to Europe (first at London’s Great Amenean Disaster and later at the Hard Rock) decides to eat out, he joins L.A.’s Italian colony at Madeo or drives to the Valley for a veggie burger at Bill White’s Food for Health.
When Barbara Lazaroff takes a night off from Spago, she and Wolfgang Puck go to Katsu, the city’s most elegant sushi bar, and she doesn’t care where she sits. “It’s like the dress business,” she says, outlining Spago’s Rules of the Game “You have to save your best dresses for your old customers.” And who are they? Jeans manufacturers. Dentists. And the ubiquitous agents. The reason they keep coming, Lazaroff adds, is that “l try to make it look like a party. I’m a modern-day geisha. l dress up. I smile. I tell bawdy jokes. For this l had elevcn years of higher education?” As for the privileged seating, the Bronx-born social arbiter of show business explains that it’s simply a matter of Real-politik and logistics. “You can’t let Elizabeth Taylor stand at the bar while sixty people feel get up.”
lf you must dine with stars, but want to avoid the scars, the easiest way is to go to the Caffe Roma, Beverly Hills’ answer to Paris’ La Coupole. Lunch is a Fellini sideshow of visiting Italian soccer stars, French call girls, and Iranian arms dealers, mixed in with the likes of Schwarzenegger, Baryshnikov, Mickey Rourke, and Vanna White. It’s completely unpretentious, but I guarantee they’ll treat you like a king. Or better yet, a star.