one night I was at a dinner party at Spago when the man next to me suddenly asked, apropos of nothing, "Have you ever met Tony Curtis?"
"No," I said.
"Well, you're going to." I was pondering the Zen koan quality of this exchange when I looked up to see a tanned and ascotted Tony Curtis magisterially approaching our table. As he cocked an eyebrow in my direction, I could practically see the thought bubble forming over his head: "Who is this? Nobody!" Which of course only added to the experience.
Match me, Sidney -- I was having a Tony Curtis moment! I'd hoped for a Tony Curtis moment ever since reading something Bruce Jay Friedman wrote years ago about the fabulousness of life in Hollywood -- that Tony Curtis was the kind of person who, when he tells a story about a man dropping a veal chop on the floor, actually drops a veal chop on the floor. Oh, to be in the vicinity when that chop hits the ground!
Restaurants like Spago serve a kind of "Twilight Zone" function in Hollywood. They are, besides safe zones for celebrities, portals for commoners to a different dimension -- that of the rich and famous, or at least of the hip and happening. When this occurs often enough a restaurant becomes that ineffable thing known as a Hollywood hangout.
The atmosphere begins with the waiters, who are skilled at communicating that they are the social equals of the clientele without seeming overly familiar. Overhearing a heated discussion of "The Rules" at a Maple Drive lunch in Beverly Hills last year, for instance, the waitress had a couple of pithy comments to make about the book. When a customer at Orso on West Third Street joked, while fumbling for her Visa, "Will you take my Lucky's charge card?" the groovily spectacled waiter deadpanned, "I'd consider Ralph's."
The New York-based Indochine, which has been frequented by Sharon Stone, Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Roberts since it opened its Los Angeles branch on Beverly Boulevard last December, is especially careful about this. "We have a stable of interesting wait staff," says co-owner Jean-Marc Houmard, "people who are smart enough to have dinner with the people they are serving."
but those in the position to know typically affect a certain helpless innocence when you ask them what's the secret ingredient to their restaurants. "You know... (pause) ... I don't actually know (long pause)," muses Peter Morton of Morton's, on why his namesake eatery remains the place for dinner Monday nights -- so much so that the notorious Industry column in the old Spy magazine always ended with "See you Monday night at Morton's!"
"At the end of the day, it's just giving people what they want, I guess," Morton sighs, sounding fairly bored. Hollywood restaurateurs are typically well-versed in this Hollywood jargon. They often use that ticlike phrase "at the end of the day," or speak of diners as "the audience."
Dining at Morton's with a regular, however, is an object lesson in what makes a place like this work. Last month I had lunch there with screenwriter, journalist, actor, economist and all-around Hollywood gadfly Ben Stein, in connection with his new Comedy Central game show "Win Ben Stein's Money!" Stein goes to Morton's at least two or three times a week when he's in town; that particular week, in fact, he would eat there five times.
Why? Because it's his place. The food at Morton's (which is actually quite good) is not the point, although the fact that they happily accommodate special requests is a definite plus: Stein wanted his lime-grilled chicken to be only white meat, and that's just what he got.
He must have waved at and said hello to at least half-a-dozen people in the 90-odd minutes we were there, and he felt comfortable enough to repeatedly ask the hostess to turn the annoying music down until it reached a suitably low volume. Clearly, for someone like this, Morton's is a home away from home.
In fact, the day Joan Rivers announced she was suing Stein for libel 10 years ago because of an article he'd written about her in GQ, Stein went to Morton's for dinner. He was worried about people looking at him strangely, but the waiters all patted his back soothingly and one high-powered woman executive gave him a big hug and kiss and announced, "I'm with you!" (The case was later dropped, with both parties apologizing to each other.)
"I don't want to sound like a cotton commercial," says designer Barbara Lazaroff, who runs the Spago empire with her husband, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, "but a restaurant is part of the fabric of somebody's life: where they proposed, where they cut that big deal, where they had their first date." (Or where they went after they were sued.) A Hollywood restaurant often has a special knack for making Hollywood heavyweights feel comfortable during these moments of their lives ... sometimes literally.
While designing the new Spago Beverly Hills, Lazaroff went to the home of the famously hefty movie mogul Marvin Davis -- who often dines there twice a day -- and took his measurements so she could make him his own special chair. (Davis had to wait till the new Spago opened for this perk because there wasn't room at the original one in West Hollywood.)
The physical appearance of Hollywood hangouts ranges from the discreet, elegant luxury of Spago Beverly Hills -- which took over the site of the old Bistro Garden, a longtime favorite of the Nancy Reagan set -- to the open-air casualness of Kokomo in the Farmer's Market at Third and Fairfax, where Denzel Washington once invited one of the actor-waiters onto the set of his new movie, and where eccentric old ladies from the neighborhood are indulged with endless coffee refills.
The original Spago West Hollywood has a buzzing, bistro-ish atmosphere, with the roaring fires in the open kitchen's pizza ovens and a spectacular Sunset Boulevard view of the city from a surrounding wall of windows as focal points. The generally subdued Maple Drive in Beverly Hills is notable for its prized, plush booths -- plus the loud, foul language that typically emanates from a particular booth in the corner frequented by Rob Reiner (often dressed in sweats) and Billy Crystal.
A hangout should have enough familiar faces so that the feeling is more of a club than a restaurant. "At a certain point, every place has to become some sort of variation on 'Cheers,' a community of regulars," says Sean MacPherson, whose collection of restaurants -- Jones, Swingers, Bar Marmont, the Good Luck Bar and the just opened El Carmen -- makes him probably the preeminent creator of hot spots for young Hollywood. Swingers, for example, is a jumping, casual diner, while Bar Marmont is a dark, quirkily elegant place with a bald, transvestite hostess and a retro '20s feeling. But the familiarity rule holds true for both.
MacPherson opened Swingers (which is in the Beverly Center neighborhood) with his partner at the time, Jon Sidel, long before the movie "Swingers" made this sort of in-with-the-in-crowd scene famous. A few years ago I had lunch at Swingers with Rosanna Arquette, who had just married Sidel. A parade of musician and actor acquaintances of Arquette's stopped by the table literally every few minutes. "Tell Tom I said hi!" she said cheerfully at one point to a friend on his way to a Tom Hayden fundraiser. "I like Tom."
Special clublike touches at these restaurants encourage conviviality. At the Little Door on West Third Street, for instance, where customers include Nicolas Cage and Rosanna's sister Patricia Arquette, valets drive drunk customers home. There is no identifying sign outside -- a typical affectation of happening Hollywood restaurants these days. "It's like a game -- if you really want to come here, you'll find it!" says co-owner Stephanie Meschen coyly. "The best publicity is word-of-mouth, so we do no advertising whatsoever," adds her brother and co-owner, Nicolas Meschen.
The Buffalo Club in Santa Monica also has no sign. Those not in-the-know would assume it's just another warehouse in this industrial section of Santa Monica ... except for the crew of valet parkers outside. These rather bleak surroundings make a rather magical contrast to the hidden interior restaurant and patio -- described by owner Anthony Yerkovich, a TV producer who created "Miami Vice," as sort of "an elegant take on a 1920s chophouse."
The Buffalo Club goes the Little Door one better in that its phone number isn't listed. This can inspire complicated games of one-upmanship, which of course is part and parcel of the whole Hollywood hangout experience.
"Do you have a Zagat's?" a friend called to ask when we were planning to go there recently.
"Oh, that's OK, I know someone who does -- I'll call them for the number."
"I have the number," I said grandly. "I just don't have a Zagat's."
Going to a Hollywood hangout doesn't guarantee that you're going to have a Hollywood experience, of course. But sometimes the stars are mysteriously in alignment and the entire event surpasses any tourist's expecations. Many years ago Alan Blavins, who is the creative director of the San Francisco advertising agency Randazzo & Blavins (and also my uncle) visited Los Angeles as a tourist from the U.K. He went to Le Dome on the Sunset Strip, which then as now was a prime Hollywood hangout.
Within five minutes, in walked Elton John, resplendent in a lime green suit. At the bottom of the staircase was a prone Richard Harris, who'd apparently had one too many cocktails. Then the waiter came to take the order. At that moment, a woman walking by on Sunset Boulevard decided to lift her skirt and press her naked behind up against the Le Dome window, giving the diners inside a view to remember. "How would you like the steak?" the waiter asked.
"And, being English," Alan recalls, "I said, 'I'll have it pinker than that.'"