Producer's Gossipy Film-Industry Guide to Fine Dining Is Elitist Hit

Times Staff Writer

In certain Los Angeles circles, "making it" means a membership at Helena's, an invitation to Mary and Irving (Swifty) Lazar's Oscar Night party at Spago and a regular table for the Polo Lounge's weekday power breakfasts.

Now, add another status symbol: a free subscription to film producer Jay Weston's homely but highly sought-after Restaurant Newsletter.

What started out four years ago as a one-page review of a Chinese restaurant that Weston wanted to recommend to his closest friends has matured into a gossipy film-industry guide to fine dining in Los Angeles, as well as in New York, London and Paris. In fact, Weston is almost better known these days as a restaurant reviewer than as a movie maker, a fact that rated him a mention in the latest issue of Esquire.

At first glance, Weston's 12-page publication looks like a gourmet version of My Weekly Reader, or even tackier, an advertising leaflet destined for the garbage.

But what it lacks in artistic slickness it makes up for in gustatory gusto. Always chatty, sometimes cheeky, the newsletter is a compilation of no-nonsense restaurant reviews and a handy reference of chef comings and goings as well as cafe openings and closings.

But the real draw of the newsletter is its snob appeal: The 53-year-old producer sends it gratis to virtually everybody who's anybody in show business, or about 85% of its 4,000-plus subscribers. "So, it's kind of an inside thing," Weston admits.

Naturally, Weston's buddies are on the list (but not his "sworn enemies"), along with many major stars and directors and "virtually every major movie executive in our business," he boasts. And, because Hollywood is a place with more spectacular career rises and falls than a high-wire act by the Wallendas, Weston's administrative assistant, Marian Sloan, constantly updates the subscriber list by combing through Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and the other trades daily "just to see who's new, who's hot, who's just been named head of this or that," she explains.

Yes, so-called "civilians" can subscribe, ranging from Bank of Hong Kong executives to Parisian restaurateurs. But non-show-biz types often are asked to pay $18 to cover the cost of first-class postage and handling, which Weston absorbs for his industry pals.

'Breaks the Ice'

And why not? After all, the newsletter is invaluable as a promotional gimmick. Through it, Weston is able to get his name out and about among the people who count in his profession. "When I walk into a studio now, I've got to talk restaurants for 20 minutes before I can even open my mouth about one of my movies," he says. "It doesn't help me get projects sold, but it breaks the ice with a lot of people."

People like Sean Daniels, president of production for Universal Pictures, who always wants to know the hottest Chinese restaurant of the moment, and Jeff Katzenberg, president of Walt Disney Motion Pictures, who loves to swap stories about dining-out experiences.

Veteran producer Howard Koch once telephoned Weston in the wee hours "to complain about a Chinese restaurant I sent him to," Weston recalls. "He woke me up saying how could I send him to Monterey Park for this terrible food. And he wanted to give me the name of a restaurant he thought was better, which wasn't.

"I said, 'Howard, it's 2 a.m.' And he said, 'I just got home!' "

Weston also recently began sending his newsletter to the secretaries of movie VIPs. "They called up wanting their own copy because their boss would take the newsletter home," Weston says. "Now, I've got a whole network of these secretaries who help me. They tell me what their boss is doing, what he's looking for, and so forth. They're wonderful."

In turn, it's become something of a coup to rate a mention in the publication. Want to know producer Ray Stark's favorite place to lunch? Director Steve Miner's regular breakfast roadhouse? Actor Wayne Rogers' latest cafe caper? It's all in the newsletter.

The guide also is as idiosyncratic as Weston himself. It's full of colorful bits about his background as a Brooklyn native, one-time syndicated newspaper columnist and former public relations executive. One issue tells of the time Weston dreamed up a silly press-agent stunt in which he held a luxurious Waldorf-Astoria gourmet dinner where each course featured Joyvah Canned Halvah--his client, naturally--as an ingredient. Another talks about his wife Anna's upcoming TV miniseries, "The Billionaire Boys Club." And all are sprinkled liberally with the names of his show-biz friends like TV producer Larry Gelbart, business manager Edgar Gross, and composer Henry Mancini.

Good Promotion

Nevertheless, for years Weston resisted the temptation to use the newsletter to tout his own film projects even though he was dying to. This year, however, Weston broke with tradition by asking readers to vote for "Platoon" as the year's Best Picture because of the involvement of one of his best friends, producer Arnold Kopelson. And then he plugged his own film, "Heartbreak Ridge," whose star, Clint Eastwood, was up for an Oscar. "So now I'm going to do more," Weston says.

Indeed, a recent issue gives details about his forthcoming HBO movie, "Laguna Heat," starring Harry Hamlin and Jason Robards, in between reviews of At Marty's on Pico Boulevard and a hot dog stand at Temescal Canyon and Pacific Coast Highway. "We were shooting all over the Southland," Weston explains, "and wherever we went, I was trying restaurants."

On this particular evening, Weston is reviewing veteran restaurateur Silvio de Mori's new Fairfax Avenue eatery, Tuttobene, located where Patrick Terrail's Hollywood Diner used to be. A gaggle of waiters hover around Weston's corner table--a fact not lost on the reviewer. "I may get a little better service if the people know me. But no restaurant can give me special food," he notes in between sips of his signature cocktail, a mixture of cassis and Pellegrino.

Accompanied by good friend Edgar Gross, the business manager to such stars as Linda Evans and Gene Hackman, Weston notes that his wife doesn't appreciate fine dining like he does. "The tragedy of my life is that I am married to a woman who couldn't care less about food," Weston grimaces theatrically. "She could live on bread and butter and Almond Joys."

Not Weston, who despite a hiatal hernia is patiently working his way down De Mori's list of spicy specials. "Isn't this fun?" he marvels as a white-coated waiter places three pasta dishes in front of him for sampling. "What could be better in life?--I make movies and I eat. When I was a kid in Brooklyn, I dreamed about having a great life like this."

It's a tough job, to be sure, but then somebody's got to do it. During the meal, Weston proudly points out the half-dozen industry honchos eating dinner who are also his subscribers--screenwriter John Kohn, video producer Arthur Schimmel and his wife, Margo Winchester, an independent filmmaker. "They're all people who met Silvio through my newsletter and followed him here," Weston boasts as he regally waves hello.

Schimmel calls out in response, "I run to your newsletter before I go out to eat."

While most producers in Weston's position dream only of winning an Academy Award, Weston's ambition seems to be seeking out Oscar-worthy meals. This year, for instance, it is no mere coincidence that he is shooting a film in Monte Carlo and the South of France, home to some of the world's most renowned restaurants.

He also just optioned an article by Merrill Schindler in the current issue of Playboy about a food critic who was jilted at the altar, but decides to go on his European honeymoon anyway because he can't pass up all those wonderful meals. "I admit it's a wonderful story," Weston says. "But the idea of doing this film in Italy. . . ."

His voice trails off. The prospect is making Weston hungry all over again.

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