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Une Petite Party

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So you think Southern California is laid-back? When the very Gallic Michele Lamy moved to Los Angeles, she quickly discovered just how carefree the city really is.

“The first week I was here, I got two tickets,” she says. “One was for jaywalking--I did not know what it was--and one was for having no [swim] bra on the beach. And they were both $75. You know, if you come from Europe, you don’t even think about wearing a top on the beach. I could see people were wearing one, but it’s a free country.”

Voila.

That was 20 years ago. In the interim, Lamy has lost neither her thick accent nor her taste for a steady stream of cigarettes. And with her 3-year-old hot spot, Les Deux Cafes, Lamy has injected un petit peu de (a little bit of) Provence into raggedy old Hollywood, helping to bring the historic area back to life.

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Indeed, L.A. Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg says the chic Les Deux has helped lure studios and post-production houses back to Hollywood.

“It’s certainly an important addition to Hollywood to have an upscale place like that right off Las Palmas,” Goldberg says. “Folks in the entertainment industry like to be able to eat at expensive, well-done restaurants. It’s important for them to have places to take their big clients.”

On any given night, except Sundays--"She has to go to the beach sometime,” says her longtime friend, Anne Crawford--the petite Lamy can be seen tottering around on thick platform soles, surveying her palm-spiked paradise. There, behind stone walls reminiscent of Avignon, is a garden of olive and magnolia trees, all abutting a parking lot.

If you’re lucky enough to find the entrance tucked away in a corner of the lot, you may find Madonna or Lenny Kravitz or any of the other uber-hipsters who clamor for tables. But for all of Les Deux’s enduring popularity--three years being a near eternity in the usual life cycle of trendy eateries--the indoor-outdoor restaurant is not for everyone.

“It’s been the place for that generation of folks who probably wouldn’t go to Spago,” says Merrill Schindler, editor of the Zagat Survey of Southern California Restaurants. “They’re bouncing between the Viper and the Conga rooms and Les Deux Cafes. It meets all the qualifications of offbeat--it’s a hard location to find, hard to get in, and they have attitude up the wazoo, and that’s what those folks want.”

Of course, attitude is in the eye of the beholder.

Paul Fortune, who collaborated with Lamy on the design of the rustic French restaurant, acknowledges that Les Deux is not the place for people on a tight schedule.

“I’ve seen people behave so badly--CAA agents who want their Diet Coke right now,” says Fortune, West Coast editor of House & Garden magazine. “When we first opened, it was insanely busy. There were only 60 seats and everyone wanted to come. People would call me to try to get a table, and then they’d start complaining about the service.

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“Listen, what’s the big rush? If you want to sit at your table all night and drink and smoke [outdoors], you can do that. She won’t throw you out, which most restaurants will do.”

Hey, Isn’t That Billy Zane at the Mike?

If Les Deux Cafes has managed to outlive its 15 minutes, it may be because Lamy has created the feel of a private club. Sting threw a birthday party there. John Murray, brother of Les Deux investor Bill Murray, tends bar every night. And Lamy occasionally invites Les Deux habitues such as Fortune and actor Billy Zane to supper--providing they agree to sing for it. Lamy herself takes the microphone and belts out torch songs in ze smoky French, somewhat like an L.A. version of Marlene Dietrich.

If you’re not an insider, all that je ne sais quoi can be intimidating. But Lamy’s friends say people who find her scary just don’t get her.

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“She knows who she is,” Fortune says. “Anyone who’s confident and really knows who she is intimidates people.”

At the moment, Lamy is nibbling a salade Nicoise in the restaurant’s garden, where she’s indulging in French women’s strategy for staying thin--for every bite, she takes several drags on her nearly omnipresent cigarette. (The tiny 55-year-old restaurateur also keeps trim by boxing.)

She’s wearing a slinky pearl-gray dress designed by her longtime boyfriend, Rick Owens, who’s responsible for her entire wardrobe. Lamy’s wavy-brown hair is colored with a brick-hued henna from North Africa, and little black triangles formed by Japanese hair color stain her fingernails. She is explaining the philosophy behind Les Deux.

“I’m always here at night, because the idea of this restaurant is it’s a party every night at my house. And I would never have a party at my house and have people greeted by a server. I will make sure everybody is happy with what they are getting, and when there are people crashing the party, I will have to tell them to leave because you can’t employ somebody else to do that.”

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If Lamy considers the restaurant her home, that’s because she’s at home with restaurants. Her mother’s father had a restaurant in Lyon. “We lived in restaurants, so I never cooked because we always had a chef with us,” she says.

Her father’s side of the family was prominent among France’s eyewear and accessories designers, and when Lamy turned 18, she sold her collection of bracelets and cigarette holders to haute couture designers Karl Lagerfeld and Yves St. Laurent.

“I made a fortune,” which she spent on entertaining her friends at La Coupole restaurant in Paris, but now she says, “I was so stupid.”

Lamy briefly was a criminal defense attorney, but after a couple of years, she discovered she wasn’t cut out for the courtroom.

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“I wasn’t good at it,” she says. “I was crying in court.”

From Law to Design to Fashion to Food

By the mid-'70s, Lamy had returned to the family fold.

“I cannot escape or I don’t have the imagination to do something that’s so different from what they did,” she says. When her brother, Thierry Gros, took over the eyewear factory, he enlisted Lamy as a designer. She spent the late ‘70s selling her designs to New York stores and, in 1979, moved to Los Angeles.

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“I moved here because my brother had been here,” she says. “He said, ‘L.A. is easier. It’s like New York on the Riviera.’ ”

But Lamy didn’t settle anywhere near the beach. Au contraire. She started a knitwear business in an artists’ loft downtown.

“I was pretty much still living the European way, and I’m still living that way. To me, you live where you work, and then you go off for the weekend. I have no concept of suburban life, where you have to drive an hour to work.”

In the late ‘80s, she moved with her then-husband, avant-garde filmmaker Richard Newton, to Hollywood, a relatively old part of town that appealed to her European sensibility. She opened her first restaurant, Cafe Des Artistes, on McCadden Place, which she ran for seven years. The area was so raw, so attractive to drug dealers and the like, that staff members routinely called police for an escort at closing time.

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Lamy’s fashion knitwear business collapsed in the early ‘90s, and she filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. But in 1996, Lamy acquired a patch of parking lot on Las Palmas, not far from Cafe Des Artistes, and turned it into a garden. She then took over an adjacent building that had been the Tip Top Jazz Club in the ‘20s and later the House of Ivy, one of L.A.'s first restaurants catering to a gay clientele.

‘She Not About Making Money,’ a Colleague Says

In 1997, Lamy moved a former crack house to the site, refinished its dark wood paneling and transformed the Craftsman structure into the softly lit main room of Les Deux Cafes. (The two connected buildings form Les Deux Cafes.)

“To me, a restaurant has to look like it’s been there forever,” Lamy says. “Whatever new design you do will be totally passe six months later. And when you go to a restaurant, it’s like going to see your mom. You go there to be fed.”

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Lamy’s skills as a restaurateur haven’t necessarily included talent as a businesswoman. She faced a flurry of lawsuits from disgruntled creditors last spring but says she’s settled those debts. And a plan to raise cash by selling $5,000 memberships to the restaurant fizzled from lack of interest.

“She’s not about making money,” Fortune says. “She’s just interested in doing something good.”

So every day Lamy walks to work from Owens’ studio across Las Palmas, which doubles as the couple’s home. Her mission these days is to cook up a bigger, better Les Deux. Also, she and her brother recently opened Traction, a store on Las Palmas that offers an idiosyncratic mix of the family’s line of eyewear, rare books and Lee Brevard jewelry. And this winter she’s planning to open an art gallery in the Les Deux warren with two partners. Artistic flair runs in the family: Lamy’s 18-year-old daughter, Scarlett Rouge Newton, is a student at CalArts in Valencia.

And most every evening, Les Deux patrons watch Lamy ply her art as a landscape architect of the night.

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Says Fortune: “She’s one of those unusual people that this town sorely lacks. She’s got personality and a completely individual style, and she’s a catalyst for various artists, actors and movie stars. She pulls people together.”

Irene Lacher can be reached by e-mail at irene.lacher@latimes.com.


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