Dinner for None : Winner of 25 Buffet Tickets at a Downtown Cafe Invites Homeless, Who Are Turned Away at Door


Franc Novak, a 32-year-old art director and painter who lives in a loft in downtown Los Angeles, considers himself a socially conscious guy. Every day, he passes homeless people on the streets. Sometimes he hires them to work in his studio.

The people who run Gorky’s Cafe and Russian Brewery, an offbeat restaurant with a reputation for the bohemian, are socially conscious as well. Just last Christmas, they threw a benefit for the homeless at their Hollywood branch. They raised $5,000.

So when Novak won a free buffet dinner for 25 at the Gorky’s in downtown Los Angeles, he knew just what to do. Tuesday evening, he passed out tickets along Skid Row.


Trouble was, Gorky’s management envisioned the dinner as a promotion to attract new customers, and people who make their home in the streets weren’t exactly the type of clients they had in mind.

The upshot: Novak and his new friends were unceremoniously booted out--no free dinner, not even takeout.

“I felt like Gorky’s had made me a deal and so I took this deal and I tried to do something nice and I really felt like I was letting these people down,” an embittered Novak said Wednesday. “What a wonderful world.”

Gorky’s owner, Fred Powers, replied that Novak brought a dangerous element into his restaurant, threatening other customers. He said downtown is a rough enough place to do business--two weeks ago his manager was threatened at knifepoint--without inviting the homeless to dinner.

“This guy had no right to do what he did,” Powers declared. “There’s an element down here that are killers, people that are convicts, that are on drugs, that steal from people downtown on a regular basis. I don’t want those people in my restaurant.”

The seeds for the culture clash, both sides agree, were planted weeks ago, when Novak dropped his business card into a fishbowl at the restaurant. Gorky’s holds buffet parties two or three times a week. Generally, seven or eight winners are selected; their guests mingle--enjoying, as Gorky’s advertises, “foodski, funski, brewski.”

Not long ago, Novak got a call from Gorky’s, informing him that he had won. A letter soon followed, promising “a very informal mixing type party” and a “networking atmosphere,” as well as a complimentary bottle of champagne and a free Gorky’s T-shirt for the winner. It was accompanied by 25 tickets, which Novak was to pass out to his friends.

The only requirements were that the guests be at least 21, have the invitations with them and agree not to take food out of the restaurant. “So I thought, I’ll just feed a bunch of people and it will be great,” Novak said.

At 8 p.m.--the party was scheduled from 7:30 to 9:30--Novak and a friend drove their pickup truck around downtown, stopping at the Midnight Mission and the Weingart Center. Within 15 minutes, the blue tickets were gone.

By the time Novak got to Gorky’s, some of the homeless already had arrived. Their appearance and demeanor is a matter of some dispute.

Novak says they were not badly dressed (he contends he went out of his way to invite people who looked clean) and were sitting politely near the door. Powers, the restaurant owner, says his employees reported that the group was rowdy and “dressed in tattered rags and smelled terrible.”

In any event, the assistant manager was waiting at the door when Novak walked in.

“We can’t have this,” Novak recalls him saying.

“Why not?” Novak asked.

The assistant manager explained that the buffet had a promotional twist to it. An argument ensued. Novak said it soon became clear to him that dinner at Gorky’s was not in the cards:

“I said to them, ‘At the very least, if you don’t like looking at these people, just give these people some takeout and they’ll be happy.’ And they just would not do it.”

Restaurant manager Mitchell Cohen, who was giving instructions to the assistant manager by telephone from home, makes no bones about refusing.

“I told him not to do it,” Cohen said. “To provide a takeout dinner for 25 people would be somewhere in the $200-to-$250 range. That is a significant outlay . . . I’ve got a budget I’ve got to work with.”

When management threatened to call the police, Novak and his guests left, some angry, others simply acquiescing. Novak drove a few of them back to the Midnight Mission.

On Wednesday, Novak’s phone rang. It was someone from Gorky’s--not the downtown restaurant, but the one in Hollywood. Congratulations, the caller said. You have won a free dinner for 25 of your friends.

Novak had but one question for the woman, who clearly had no idea of what had happened the night before: “Can I bring anyone I want?”