Where the Regulars Reign

This occasional column is Staff Writer Jeannine Stein's guide to life in L.A.

An agent's assistant is trying to get his boss a table for that night. Monday night at Morton's.

He calls at 6:30, gets Rick Cicetti, the maitre d'. "Hmmm. That's peak time," says Cicetti, sensing the assistant's edgy voice as he scans the much-scrawled-upon reservations sheet. "But I tell you what. I'm going to get him a table. It may not be the best table, but I'll do what I can. He's with William Morris? Where, in talent? Uh-huh. OK. He'll have a table. Don't worry, he'll feel good about it."

Cicetti hangs up and chuckles. "He was so happy. He says, 'You mean we're in ?' "

It's very early Friday and, across town, another restaurant is preparing for its onslaught of regulars. Only these aren't studio heads or agents jockeying for "A" tables and the chance to make deals over grilled free-range chicken.

At Vickman's, the bulk of the early-morning customers are produce, meat and flower vendors, and delivery men and women who start emerging from the darkness at 3 a.m. for coffee and a sweet roll. By 6:30, the sun casts golden light on the high-back wooden booths, illuminating the still-sleepy faces of the people sitting there.

Even on Friday mornings, the busiest time of the week, people line up quietly at the counter, newspapers tucked under their arms, wearing anything from sweats to suits, waiting to order eggs, sausage and muffins the size of softballs--food people used to eat before the word cholesterol became an obscenity.

Since 1919, Vickman's has been serving up comfort food in a weathered, homey diner/luncheonette, where waitresses call their customers "sweetheart."

And while these people may not run movie studios or have clients who earn million-dollar salaries, regulars are regulars--and they want what they want when they want it.

"A big group usually comes in around 7 and takes this table," says Dave Williams, Vickman's general manager. "People will walk around the counter and get their own food." He laughs. "They feel very comfortable here. I've learned more about the place from (the customers) than the owners. They tell me where things are."

While Morton's caters to glitz and Ovitz, Vickman's draws night-shift working stiffs. At one, Evian pours into spotless water glasses while at the other, coffee spills into worn white diner mugs. Both are landmarks, satisfying people who come seeking the familiar, knowing this is where they'll always find it.

On Mondays, the entertainment biz's major players forsake all other restaurants and steer their Beemers, Jags and Rolls to Morton's pink stucco building at Melrose and Robertson.

The William Morris agent got a table near the back, close to a large group of serious-looking Sony execs--but that's the least of Cicetti's problems this night. Producer Steve Tisch ("Freshman Dorm," "Big Business") waits at the bar for his usual near-the-front table, but the foursome sitting there now is lingering way too long over coffee.

Cicetti's jaw sets in frustration and his forehead gets a touch shiny with sweat as he cruises through the dining room.

"I just chased after this party out to the parking lot," he says about a another group. "They wouldn't stay. They had an 8:30 reservation. They got here at 8:40 and they (would have) had to wait."

He's a stocky guy in a navy pin-stripe suit and white shirt, a part-time actor who has the right balance of attitude and deference for a job that handles egos as fragile as eggshells yet as massive as glaciers.

People like Michael Ovitz and Marvin Davis are among Morton's faithfuls, the industry's kings whom he calls "peak performers."

"I like watching (them)," he explains. "Peripherally--not studying them--but when you're busy, you're taking in a lot of things."

About 8 or 8:30, Morton's hits a fever pitch. Until then the waiters still have time to lace their tongues with breath freshener, and Cicetti can schmooze relaxed. But at peak time, regulars like Columbia Pictures chairman Mark Canton and producer Freddie Fields are in place, waiters bark "IN!" and "OUT!" as they fly through the kitchen and the bar is three-deep.

Julie Pop is the Monday night hostess, a lively brunette in a charcoal pin-stripe pantsuit, spectator oxfords and red lipstick. During the week, she's the only woman waiting tables, but on Mondays she is Cicetti's upfront backup and kooky sidekick.

She looks familiar but you can't quite figure out why until she says, "Do you ever watch daytime TV? Have you seen that 1-800-DENTIST commercial?"

Her agent just gave Pop some lousy news--she's been turned down for two acting jobs.

But it doesn't seem to dampen her playfulness. A slick agent-type in a gray suit and schoolboy-frame glasses stops by after his dinner to give Pop a big bear hug from behind.

"I love this girl! I love this girl! Can you tell?"

Pop smiles, kids with him, and when he leaves she says, "He's been asking me out for weeks. He'll come in and say, 'Hey, we should go out.' And I say, 'Great, when?' And he says, 'I'm a little busy, I'll call you next week.' These agents are a little slick."

By 10, Morton's is starting to clear. Most of the big shots have surrendered their gold cards and Cicetti's breathing a lot easier now. He's still got an eye on Johnny Depp's table, since the actor arrived for a late dinner about 9:45 and Cicetti wants to make sure the star leaves happy.

But it won't be for another hour or so that he--and the rest of the staff--can truly relax. About 11 the last few dessert orders come through the kitchen, the parking lot is nearly empty and waiters go from a fast gait to a slow walk.

Dave Williams waves and smiles at two older men on their way out of Vickman's, newspapers tucked under their arms.

"They've been coming here every day for four years," he says, amazed at their dedication.

"Hey, you survived your first week?" one of them asks. "Will we see you Monday?"

It's Williams' fourth day on the job. He's here via the Irvine Ranch Farmer's Market and his own restaurants in Cambria and Santa Fe, hired, he says, to update Vickman's menu, with its old-fashioned dishes and corny names (the Bank President sandwich--corned beef and pastrami).

So far he's introduced lunch specials such as osso bucco , which even the regular regulars seem to like.

Williams recalls coming here as a kid with his parents. "I remember the bakery," he says, head tipped up as if catching a whiff of some good smells. "I used to love sweets."

Not much about the place's atmosphere has changed since his boyhood a few decades ago, when it was still a big deal to dress up and go downtown. Not the booths that line the walls, not the produce vendors who commandeer the long tables in the back and talk shop.

With a few scant days of experience under his belt, he already acts like he's as much a part of Vickman's as the old "Your Weight Free" scale on the back wall near the bathrooms. ("Correct food, correct weight spells health. Thank you.").

He points out a group huddled at a back table. Fish sellers discussing business.

"Did he like the size of the fish?"

"Well, he wasn't jumping up and down about them, but he was OK with it."

In the other room, a waitress reaches across the counter to a customer.

" Como esta? " she says to him.

"How's your sister?"

"Oh, she's expecting."

Heading toward a back booth, waitress Lynn Ramirez carts a plate of eggs and toast.

"How are you, sweetheart?" she asks a middle-aged man reading the paper.

"Hi, mama!" she says to a pregnant woman as she pats her stomach. "Remember, name the baby after me.

"Hey!" she scolds an older man eating sausage. "Talk nicely to me when I have a knife in my hand.

"I'm real mean to 'em," she says, explaining her tactics. "But they like it. If I'm not, then they wonder what's wrong."

By 3 p.m. Vickman's has served its final meal and shuts down for the day, about the time the downtown produce and flower business is coming to a close, and only a little while before the prep chefs start setting up for dinner at Morton's.

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