What He Really Wants to Do Is Direct

Carla Hall is a Times staff writer. Her last piece for the magazine was about the popularity of straight hair

Michael Chow is explaining where in his new Westwood restaurant he will seat the famous, the unknown, the beautiful, the ugly, the tall, the short, the fat, the thin.

He sits in a booth with a sculpted leather back, both hands caressing the polished acrylic table that he painstakingly selected to furnish this ambitious new gastronomic production. Chow has micromanaged every detail of Eurochow, from the cut of the veal to the hardware that secures the tasseled ropes of the curtains. Now he turns his attention to the patrons.

"Like the opening shot of a movie, where there's only one right place to put the camera," he says, "there's only one right seat for each person."

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that Chow, who for 25 years has presided over the celebrity-favored Mr Chow in Beverly Hills, is himself a frustrated director. So in his latest venture, did you really think he would give up the job of casting?

He scans the mezzanine, a wraparound second-story loft overlooking tables cloaked in white cloths. Three tables flank the front railing, the most visible seats in the restaurant.

'I think you put a lot of women there because when you come in, you see them first," Chow says with a chuckle.

What about a couple?

"Not so simple. First you have to decide whether they belong to upstairs or downstairs."

Chow, who has long admitted to seating people according to a star system at his Beverly Hills restaurant, insists that some of his judgments are practical. He can't put a very tall man in a booth. He can't have a celebrity like Madonna on display in the single table that sits in a theaterlike balcony box. (She'd probably get the tall guy's booth.)

"If I put someone very shy on the balcony, they will be uncomfortable," he says.

But how do you know someone is shy?

"Instinctively."

What if you want to put me downstairs and I want to sit upstairs?

"How can you know more than I do when I designed the restaurant?"

Chow suggests that however he seats me, it's for my own good. But I know too much already; I know if I arrive with a group of girlfriends and we're not seated at a table upstairs by the railing, it's because we weren't deemed attractive enough.

He listens soberly. "OK," Chow says, "I'll make a note--when you come in, no way will you be seated there. Hahahahahaha!"

Can you imagine what he'd be like as a film director? Autocratic, audacious and, just when you think you have him pegged, unexpectedly wry. All the traits that have distinguished him in the arena of tables and silverware and uplighting (a favorite ploy) would serve him sell in Hollywood, the world he has yet to conquer. For now, he must content himself with his most unusual restaurant, the $4-million Eurochow (he prefers to capitalize every letter, but we don't), starring a resuscitated L.A. landmark and--as always--Michael Chow.

"If I may be so bold, a lot of people were influenced by me in this city and in other parts of the world," says the 60-year-old restaurateur.

Whether you are a fan or a critic of Michael Chow and his food, he has earned a spot on the L.A. cultural landscape with his semi-legendary Beverly Hills restaurant, Mr Chow. No period, no "restaurant" and, God forbid, no apostrophe S. ("Minimalism at its best," he says.) The gathering spot on North Camden Drive has survived a quarter century--that's about three lifetimes in restaurant years--in mercurial Los Angeles, serving up Chinese food with a dollop of casual glamour. At the 1974 opening, Clint Eastwood and Eartha Kitt rubbed shoulders with Robert Wise and Olivia de Havilland. Not only was Chow's new restaurant the "antithesis of Chinoiserie," as he puts it--no red lanterns, no dragons--Mr Chow offered a sexy, glittery experience in a town where "elegant dining" meant eating in a stodgy hotel (or Chasen's) and "casual" meant Du-par's.

Over the years, Mr Chow has been avant garde and passe, in and out, hot and not so hot. Never a favorite with critics--initial reviewers seemed reserved and suspicious of all the gloss--the restaurant has been generally ignored by foodies. But in the 1970s, when even well-heeled restaurant-goers thought of Chinese food as the cheap takeout fare on the corner, the expensive Mr Chow was a revelation with its beautifully presented green prawns and Peking duck and hand-pulled noodles. The regulars--entertainment industry folk, Westside professionals, the artists that Chow has befriended and has fed gratis in exchange for their art--never stopped going there. Or if they did, they eventually came back.

On a recent Sunday night, Kirk Douglas held court at the best table in the house; rising star Tobey Maguire and Quincy Jones' daughter Rashida supped later in the evening at a nearby table. At the opposite corner from the Douglas table, record industry giants Ahmet Ertegun and Phil Spector sat with a large group.

The room still has a black-and-white checkerboard floor with huge black-and-white orb-like mobiles suspended from the ceiling. There's little about it that shouts "Los Angeles"--the art on the walls is serious, the light is buttery, the seating is compact.

Eurochow, which opened June 17, is a departure from all that. The food is mostly Italian, with Chinese appearing as "a guest star," says Chow. The prices are more modest. The room seats 150. (Mr Chow seats barely 100.) And the patio accommodates 50.

But the most dramatic difference is the architecture.

The restaurant is in a 1929 historic building, once the site of Westwood's domed Bank of America branch, later a succession of dreary clothing stores. Now it is a palace, with glossy white lacquered walls, standing at the quirky intersection of three streets--Westwood Boulevard, Kinross Avenue and Broxton Avenue--like a rebuilt fortress beckoning people to return and resurrect the abandoned village of Westwood.

Chow was drawn to the space, knowing how rare it is to find an architectural gem available for restaurant use. He designed every element, taking advantage of the spectacular curves of the space, and dubbing the venture Eurochow for the international chic of the prefix, even stating on the menu that euros are accepted. (It's a gimmick. Chow isn't sure what the staff would do with the new European currency.)

"I'm that kind of restaurateur. I look after every screw. A little bit of tunnel vision. Control freak," he says as if parroting phrases from his press clippings. "Guilty of all those things."

And more. Chow is funny, playful, stylish, obsessive. An artist and an architect with only a modicum of education, he designed his restaurants, a London hair salon and two Armani boutiques--one on Rodeo Drive, the other in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. One thing he is not is obsequious, even though he's running restaurants. The Mr Chow troika--Beverly Hills, New York, London--is flourishing. The service is professional, the attention to detail is meticulous (forks must be set tines-down on the tables), his sense of how to handle celebrities and regulars is pitch-perfect. But Chow is not a glad-hander; he does not court his guests by bobbing from table to table. If he's even in his Beverly Hills restaurant (he lives in Holmby Hills), he's probably sitting at a table with his wife, Eva Chun, the former fashion designer, eating dinner. Better to let the 1984 Andy Warhol portrait of him--an inky black-and-white study of a coolly posed Chow--preside over the dining room.

When he became a restaurateur in London 31 years ago, Michael Chow wanted to show Westerners two things: that Chinese cuisine was one of the remaining great cultural contributions of his native land and that it could be the centerpiece of an elegant restaurant.

In the process, the restaurant business provided him with the dignity denied him as a young Chinese immigrant in 1950s and '60s London and the renown, not to mention wealth, that eluded him as a struggling young artist.

"I want to be creative and I want to have fame," he says. "That eliminates racism. If I am famous, people look at fame first before the race."

Not for nothing are his restaurants called Mister Chow. His sister, the film and stage actress Tsai Chin (from whom Chow is now estranged), wrote in her 1988 autobiography, "Daughter of Shanghai," that her brother's decision to use the title was a "brilliant stroke, for people would now address him unconsciously with respect." It worked. Even in Los Angeles, where everyone seems to be referenced by first name only, Michael Chow is often referred to as "Mr. Chow."

It remains to be seen whether Eurochow can duplicate the success of Mr Chow. He is philosophical about its chances: "Whether it's food or movies or designer interiors, the key is always the same," says Chow, "which is, without sounding too corny, faith. Believe in God and believe in the truth. If you do everything correctly with faith, what I call a 'controlled accident' happens. Masterpieces are controlled accidents. If masterpieces were not controlled accidents, then people would be producing masterpieces all day long. It's a reward from God. You've been faithful."

No, he's not religious. "Not in the sense that you mean," he says. We are sipping Eurochow's cappuccino which, two days before the opening, is perfect, another example of Chow's quality control. What he most worships is his creative vision that has held him in relatively good stead as an entrepreneur. He has had failures (he has opened, by his count, 11 restaurants across the world) and aborted projects. A plan three years ago to open four Chow restaurants on the site of the old Chasen's was scrapped.

And then there's his pursuit of Hollywood's holy grail. His efforts to break into film directing have not been successful. Despite his sensitivity to Chinese stereotypes, he has portrayed--and continues to portray--a slew of them in films such as "You Only Live Twice," "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" and "Lethal Weapon 4." He played himself in "Basquiat." "I was terrible," he says, grimacing at the memory. "It's very difficult to play yourself." His Korean-born wife, who moved here at 17, refused sugar cane and ramen noodle commercials when she was modeling. But she says Chow takes such typecast parts because they're campy. "If he had to make his living from it, he wouldn't do it," says Eva Chun.

But for the most part, Michael Chow has had success that reflects his highly developed sense of style in food, design and art. He has become known for his personal style as well--the signature black-framed glasses, the black suits with mandarin collars, the customized convertible Bentley he drives around town. All three of his wives came from the fashion world. Yet he's annoyed when people focus on his stylishness--or the stylishness of his restaurants. "Mr Chow survived all this time because of the food," he says. "People always take that away from me. They say, 'Well, he's hip and has style.' "

But he is hip. And he does have style. Chow is famous for collecting portraits of himself by rising and established artists. At one point, he owned an extraordinary collection of Art Deco furniture by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann but sold it when he was divorcing Tina Chow.

And speaking of style, what about Tina, his second wife? (Some Reports count her as the third or fourth wife, but Chow denies any more than three marriages.) Tina, a former model and jewelry designer who was revered as an icon of international style, died from AIDS complications in 1992 at the age of 41.

She is his least favorite subject.

In the late '70s and early '80s, Michael and Tina Chow epitomized the jet-set lifestyle, commuting between continents to their restaurants, being photographed by Helmut Newton in an edgy 1984 tableau that featured Tina tied to the bar of Mr Chow in Beverly Hills while Michael eyed her. The stunning daughter of a Japanese war-bride mother and American father, Tina had two children with Michael--China, 25, an actress, and Maximillian, 22, a student at Santa Monica College. The Chows were married in 1972, separated in the late '80s and divorced in 1990. Her illness was widely chronicled and reported to have been the result of an affair with a Frenchman who died of AIDS two years before Tina did.

Ask Chow how Tina influenced him and he grows uncharacteristically reserved. "It's been so long. My memory's not so good," says the man who collects movie esoterica in his head.

He admits that she may have had something to do with creating the restaurants' mystique but says, pointedly, "Mr Chow is at the height of its success in Los Angeles and New York." And, obviously, he wants you to know, she had nothing to do with that.

Chow prefers to talk about the Chow family as it is configured today: wife Eva, 43, daughter Asia, 4, and the two older children. It's as if he shed whoever he was with Tina. "At present, I'm in such bliss with Eva," he says of the woman he married in Las Vegas in 1992. "It's like talking about someone else, not me."

Michael Chow has reinvented himself several times. His father was the legendary Beijing Opera star Zhou Xing Fang, who whetted his son's appetite for applause and a theatrical life in one form or another. His mother gave her six children Western names. In 1952, at 13, Michael and older sister Tsai Chin (who adopted for the stage a Chinese name her father gave her) were sent to England to be away from the political troubles that would engulf their parents.

Chow endured the bullying of other adolescents at two dismal boarding schools before finding his way to London. He spent a year at St. Martin's, the art school, and two more years in architecture school before assuming the role of starving Bohemian artist. He tried acting, taking small stock roles in movies. (He even played a Chinese laundry boy in a 1958 British movie, "Violent Playground.")

He rarely held a traditional job; he was a dishwasher and a waiter in restaurants for a matter of months. His first big break was his much-acclaimed design of a London hair salon in 1965. After that, he only did entrepreneurial projects, indulging his creative talent, his sense of glamour and his prescience of the next hot thing. He opened the London Mr Chow in 1968, when the British capital was the center of chic in music, art and fashion. His yearlong marriage to Vogue creative director Grace Coddington, then a fashion editor at British Vogue, fell apart. Being an interracial couple in the late '60s "didn't help," says Chow. "But that's not major. I think maybe she got fed up with the restaurant business."

It was A&M; Records co-founder Jerry Moss who brought Chow, and Mr Chow, to Los Angeles, investing $500,000. "At the time," says Moss, "that was a pretty fair sum of money."

When they opened the restaurant in 1974, Moss recalls, "people were calling me at home for reservations. That went on for six weeks. Then for two years, we had no one coming. You could roll a bowling ball in there for entertainment." But gradually it picked up. Moss invited record company people and entertained colleagues and friends. Other patrons brought other friends. "For a while, it was Mr Chow and Mortons," says boutique owner Tracey Ross, who started going to Chow's restaurant with her parents. "Then more competition came. People wanted to eat outside."

Moss, whose investment was repaid in the early '80s, recalls when Chow was not much of a presence in the restaurant or behind the scenes, "when he didn't go into the restaurant for five years." Chow, it turns out, was trying to direct a movie based on his own script, a project that met with little success.

But the restaurant survived. Now, say Ross and numerous devoted Chow diners, the restaurant is hotter than ever. It's as if that late-'70s, early-'80s glamour has been rediscovered by a new generation. "Look at the clothes, the fashions. Warhols are cool to own again," muses Ross.

The offspring of loyal diners have rediscovered Mr Chow as adults. Casey Wasserman shows up with his friends or grandfather, Lew Wasserman, former MCA chief. Donald Sutherland, an early patron, is now followed by his son, Kiefer. "But I had to wait for the son to grow up," chuckles Chow.

*

Eva Chun likes to say, "Mr. Chow is couture and Eurochow is ready-to-wear."

That's true in terms of the prices. But actually it's Eurochow that stands on the showroom floor of Westwood Boulevard like a couture gown with opulent handwork.

There is something surreal about all that glistening white, from the marble floors inlaid with lights (both Chow and his wife can wax on about the marvels of fiber optics) to the walls ascending to 55-foot arched ceilings. Most restaurants in the mid-day, robbed of their seductive night lighting, are mundane affairs. But Eurochow in the morning is a cathedral of sunlight. With workers padding around and Chow's staff hunkered down at tables whispering into their cell phones, you feel as if you're on a set, watching the filming of a movie about a restaurant opening.

The night of the Eurochow debut, guests include artists such as Ed Ruscha, regular clients of Mr Chow, longtime compatriots such as Vidal Sassoon, Chow's children and legions of publicists from the glittering jewelry, fashion and auction worlds. There's a smattering of celebrities--Eric Clapton, Lauren Holly, Michael York.

Michael and Eva work the room. He wears a black wool suit and a pair of velvet shoes (acquired at auction) that once belonged to the Duke of Windsor. She wears the white Vivienne Westwood dress, replete with crinolines, that she wore when Julian Schnabel painted her.

I tell Chow that I talked to Jerry Moss that day. "Did he say I owed him money?" he chortles. I assure him that he didn't and then ask Chow if he has any investors this time around. No, he answers, as he looks around the room now buzzing with champagne-drinking patrons.

"I usually risk all," Chow says calmly. "Either you believe in it or you don't."

*

Hair and makeup by Hiromi Inoko/Artist Group Management

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