The Sunday Profile : First on the Scene : Sean MacPherson just seems to know where L.A.’s cool want to converge. After all, ‘The Hip Place to Be’ usually bears his imprint.


Sean MacPherson’s name doesn’t click with people the way Wolfgang Puck does. He doesn’t appear in commercials, doesn’t build cute theme restaurants and doesn’t have a line of gourmet food.

He’s shy, as low-key and unassuming as the bars and restaurants he owns with partner Jon Sidel, including Small’s K.O., Jones, Swingers, Good Luck Bar and the recently closed Olive. Some go without so much as a sign out front.

The customers like it like that. They’re the nose-ringed groovesters of L.A.--hip young actors, models, artists and movie execs who park Harleys outside Small’s bar and wait for tables at Swingers.


This crowd is known for swarming the spot du jour until the thrill is gone, but MacPherson has managed to command their loyalty and respect. Some have been following him since the 1980s, when he was running such nightclubs as Funky Reggae, the Botswana and El Dorado. Departing that world in 1989 without a hint of a plan, MacPherson, now 30, is among the few ex-clubbies who have made a successful segue into the restaurant business.

“I always thought he’d go into entertainment,” says friend Danny Halsted, president of Illusion Entertainment Inc., a new film company. “I knew he’d be a success in anything he did. He just has that air--he’s incredibly charming and self-effacing, and has a low-key sensibility. He’s also really honest.”

The latest venture for MacPherson and Sidel is at Sunset and Virgil, in a site once frequented by transvestites. The partners named it Good Luck Bar, and had it gutted and redecorated in Chinese kitsch, complete with flocked wallpaper, red lanterns and Life magazine photos of President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. It’s MacPherson’s homage to Yee Mee Loo, a defunct Chinatown bar seemingly drawn from the pages of a pulp detective novel. He even tracked down its former bartender and persuaded him to work at Good Luck.

Five days before the bar is scheduled to open, MacPherson is at the paint store, picking up odds and ends for his construction crew. He angles his lanky body over a display of steel wool and tucks a strand of semi-damp, shoulder-length hair behind an ear as he inspects the packages, finally plucking one from the rack.

“So,” he says in a voice thick with irony, “this is the glamorous life of a restaurateur.”

Next stop: the bar. MacPherson guides his rumbling black boat of a ’68 Mercedes down Sunset. But after a few miles the car begins to stall in the middle of a major intersection, the engine sputtering as the light threatens to change from amber to red.

“I think we’ll make it,” he says, fiddling with the gears and twisting the ignition key while his foot works the gas. The engine catches, and he eases the car into a lane.


Never once does he scream or bang the steering wheel, standard operating procedure for stressed L.A. drivers. “Oh, no, you can’t do that,” he says, aghast at the thought. “You have to caress it, be nice to it.”

His composure is admirable, but MacPherson admits that he is a nervous wreck before the debut of a new establishment. “When we were getting ready to open Olive, I’d wake up every morning and throw up,” he recalls.

The day before Good Luck Bar’s opening, MacPherson calmly fixes tea in his two-story, city-view Hollywood Hills home. Its eclectic decor melds faux animal-skin throw rugs, a lipstick-red patent leather sofa and a book-lined wall--evidence of a longstanding literary habit.

Don’t mistake this present quietude for complacency, though. MacPherson is complacent about little.

“You always want to have to have done more, right?” he says, settling a kettle on his well-worn Wolf stove. “Or something of more significance. I think that on one hand, the thing I’m most proud of is just contributing to the city. I feel really good about that. But in the scheme of things, just running a couple of trendy restaurants is like, give me a break, you know?

“I just read the Thomas Jefferson biography,” he continues. “And I went into utter depression for so long. He was so smart. He used to wake up at 4 in the morning and study for eight hours. . . . As I was reading this, it was horrifying, it was like . . . what am I doing? I got up today and I read the newspaper. I didn’t even finish it.”


Eventually, though, MacPherson concedes that running trendy little restaurants isn’t as trifling as it sounds.

“They have a place in this particular city,” he says, “which is so devoid of any sort of human interaction. It allows people to rub shoulders and get close and interact with each other. I think we saw during the riots, everyone was sitting here on the Westside looking down on the city saying, ‘What the hell is going on? Who are these people and why are they so mad?’ . . . It’s not that my places are necessarily so integrated, but they certainly allow people to recognize that there is a human face to the city.”

Part of MacPherson’s angst over his accomplishments might stem from his birthday in September. The milestone prompted a subtle epiphany.

“You realize there’s no turning back--this is all there is so you’d better really make the most of it. . . . I looked at it as sort of moving into a different chapter in my life.

“One of Jon’s complaints about me is that I never considered the future at all. That’s really how I’ve always lived, and I think now that I’ve turned 30, I recognize that the future is constantly coming at me.”

MacPherson’s parents divorced when he was 2. His mother, whom he fondly refers to as “the surfing Auntie Mame,” was self-supporting and raised her son around the world, living in New Zealand, Australia, Idaho, Colorado and Malibu, where they settled. His father, a surfer and record-company executive, lives in New Zealand.


Summers were spent with her family in Guadalajara, and MacPherson worked at his grandmother’s school for blind girls there.

MacPherson says he neither rebelled against this roller-coaster ride of a life nor longed for more stability. “There was no work schedule, no time schedule, and life was really an adventure,” he says. “It really wasn’t a choice to live that way--it was the only way that we could possibly live.”

He could always count on his mothers’s insistence that he study. Evidently, she didn’t have to insist very much.

“He’s always been a super-achiever,” says Janet MacPherson, who still surfs the waters off Malibu. “I never once had to say, ‘Do your homework.’ . . . His nickname was Dick Tracy because he’d be in the back, taking it all in.”

MacPherson met his future business partner, Sidel, at USC, where neither blended in with the school’s preppier population. Sidel majored in art, MacPherson double-majored in business and philosophy. He went through SC’s Entrepreneur Program and graduated magna cum laude .

After studying in Madrid for a time, MacPherson returned to Los Angeles and moved in with Sidel, who had transferred to UCLA and created the nightclub Power Tools at the Park Plaza hotel with friend Matt Dike. With its massive dance floor, go-go girls and art installations, it was one of the first clubs to define the ‘80s L.A. scene.

Their Fairfax District apartment became Wild Life Central, MacPherson recalls with amusement.


“We were all so young and it was all so new and so overwhelming. Power Tools was such a force at that point, and suddenly you’re involved in this real piece of Los Angeles. And there was the attendant lifestyle--the 10-day-old Chinese food lying around and the girls passed out throughout the house. There weren’t orgies, just passed-out girls who would end up there. I remember I woke up one day and I walked into the bathroom, and there’s this girl with a giant tattoo and a nose ring who’s giving me a dirty look. And I said, ‘Excuse me, but I actually live here, and I need to take a shower and go to school.’ ”

MacPherson agreed to help out at Power Tools and became the club’s unofficial go-go girl wrangler, among other duties. He doesn’t dare downplay the role of females in sparking his interest in running clubs.

“Of course, come on !” he says, laughing. “It’s always the girls. But really, there’s just incredible excitement to night life that really draws you in. It was so exciting being part of that kind of life, where you really discarded everything to do with conventional life.”

By the time Power Tools had folded and Sidel was off to New York, MacPherson was into Funky Reggae with partner Matt Robinson. This high-powered hip-hop and rap club took up residence at various locations around town, drawing such rappers as LL Cool J and Grandmaster Flash and touting hip-hop before it hit the mainstream.

“That club had so much vitality, more so than anything I’ve done. . . . But as it got larger and larger, it became more and more difficult to control exactly who was coming and what was going on there, and it got to the point where it became more and more violent. We started having things like guns, and it wasn’t worth it. It was more scary than anything else.”

Robinson, now vice president of A & R at Capitol Records, DJ’d and booked the talent while MacPherson handled the business and marketing side. It was a perfect harmony of yin and yang.

“I was really off trigger-happy, I’d be saying, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, you’d better jump on this,’ ” Robinson recalls. “Sean was very methodical. And I used to get so pissed, because I know by the time he figured it out, I could have done it. But if I had done it, it probably wouldn’t have worked out. He’d say, ‘Take a deep breath, Matt.’ ”


Acting on a feeling that club-goers wanted a kinder, gentler place to go, MacPherson opened Botswana in 1987. It offered intimate rooms where people could sit and talk, in lieu of dancing in cavernous clubs.

“It was invitation only. It was $3 to get in and every single person had to pay, no matter who you were,” he recalls. “This changed my whole career because I got so much joy out of doing a place that was purely for myself. It was basically like a party at my house. Doing that was so rewarding that I saw the light--I had to do projects that I believed in. It changed the way I saw everything.”

Then he started El Dorado, near the old L.A. Press Club on Vermont and Melrose, which injected glamour into the scene. “We had this great outdoor patio, great lounge music--it was sort of fabulous and glitzy,” MacPherson says. “We also had a karaoke lounge before karaoke had really caught on. It was really fun and very alive. It had a mix of that visceral energy with sophistication.”

Sidel eventually moved back to L.A. and, over lunch one day, the two decided to open a bar. They sensed another mutation in the club scene, toward an even quieter, less frenetic place to congregate.

They left the restaurant as partners, without so much as a handshake to seal the deal.

“That would have been way too formal,” MacPherson says. “There’s no specific division of duties, nothing in writing.”

Sidel is married to actress Rosanna Arquette; a few months ago, they had a baby. But he describes his partnership with MacPherson in terms suited more for a wife than for a business partner.


“I think we work on our relationship,” Sidel says, “and I’ve been able to be myself. We have problems, but they haven’t been between the two of us. They’re from opening businesses--in this town, it’s insane. But we really, really try. Even when a lot of mini-disasters have occurred, we’re always in there trying.”

The building and decor of the bars and restaurants is almost always left up to MacPherson. “That’s one of my passions,” he says.

“I think that I’ve always been aesthetically minded--it’s something you’re just born with. I also have this sort of balance of one-fourth of my blood being Mexican and three-fourths being English blood. But the one-fourth is much more powerful. So there’s a part of me that’s very conservative and part that’s very fiery and Latin and colorful.”

And there is something of a link, MacPherson believes, between his transient childhood and his career: “As much as growing up with my mother was sort of social,” he says, “it was really not the life that would have pushed me into restaurants, per se, but if it pushed me anywhere it would be into just kind of doing as you please.

“I remember reading somewhere that people who go into business for themselves are people that couldn’t be hired anywhere else--they look too weird or they behave too weirdly or they kept strange hours. There’s no question that I can work as hard as anybody I’ve ever met, but it might be difficult for me to hold a traditional type of job.”

Twenty-four hours later, Good Luck Bar is finally ready for business. It opens on a Tuesday night and within an hour the smoky bar is packed. Guys in black leather jackets and ponytails stand around holding martini glasses, looking like members of the Noel Coward chapter of Hell’s Angels.


Word is out that this is The New Place to Be. MacPherson knows the evolution all too well: The white-hot phase will eventually settle down, and the place will become part of the landscape.

“Owning a place that you’re involved with personally is really sort of an emotional roller coaster,” MacPherson says. “It’s like having a neurotic girlfriend who won’t give you a break, like one day she loves you and one day she hates you.”

On good days, he gets off on meeting new people, even schmoozing them.

On bad days, he could do without the snippy and demanding diners, the bad reviews, and the comical scenarios indigenous to Los Angeles.

“I was at Olive one night and one of our regular customers comes up to me and says, ‘You have to get that guy a table!’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ and he says, ‘That’s Jack’s best friend !’ It was like, OK, this is the hierarchy. Another night, the maitre d’ turns to me and says, ‘We have to get this guy a table, he’s (sleeping with) Madonna.’ ”

That hipper-than-thouness is not for everyone. A restaurant reviewer for the Los Angeles Times Magazine took exception to the ambience of Olive in a 1991 article:

Most of the people who work there--the maitre d’ who takes you to your table while talking officiously into a portable phone, the waiter who shows up with cold food an hour after you’ve ordered it--appear to believe you’re lucky to be eating there.


But even when the reviews are glowing, MacPherson knows not to believe the hype.

“You see these people and they open these places and all these fabulous people come, and suddenly they feel they’re more fabulous than (the customers), and therefore they can treat you like (dirt). You have to really understand what it is you’re dealing with, that it’s fun and there’s some fabulous people, but they’re all going to go away. And at the end of the night, the likelihood is that you’ll be sweeping the foor or something.”

With the new bar finished, MacPherson will concentrate on reopening Olive, which lost its lease in a nondescript building next to the Farmer’s Daughter Motel. He won’t reveal the new location, but promises it’ll be better than the old one.

And he’s thinking about the future--for a change. He’s thinking about building a hotel.

“I’ve loved hotels my entire life,” he says. “They’re very romantic and sort of intriguing, and I think there’s such an absolute need for it. It’s just the idea that I think I could do something that’s better than anything that exists now. You have to continue to grow.”

And maybe reading about Thomas Jefferson has got him thinking about another pursuit.

“I care about this city, and I think I have a larger understanding of it. The intriguing thing about city politics is, you can actually affect change, and arguably affect people’s lives more directly than any other political office. I’m going to let that idea ruminate,” he says, a smile crossing his face. “That’s what I do. I move slowly, but I’m like the Eveready battery toy--I just keep going and going.”


Sean MacPherson

Age: 30.

Native?: No; born in New Zealand, lives in Hollywood Hills.

Family: Single.

Passions: Reading, traveling, creating new restaurants.

On money and success: “Getting rich is not important to me. If I can eat and pay my rent, my life really doesn’t change if I make more money or less money. It’s really just leading the type of life I want to lead, being able to do projects that I really believe in, and being able to do as I please, not necessarily having to answer to anyone.”

On the night-life scene: “A lot of people are afraid of it, but I think that’s part of the intrigue.”


On why dining out in Los Angeles is such serious business: “That I couldn’t tell you. I’ve reached the point with restaurants now that if I’m lucky enough to get a chair at my table, I’m happy. All the chefs I know go to Canter’s and get a salami sandwich and go back to work. It is really, really amazing how seriously people take it.”