The Hollywood lunch

Times Staff Writer

Everyone goes to the Grill on the Alley for a reason. And it isn't to eat.

Last Wednesday, Michael Caine arrived precisely at 1 p.m. He made his way to a choice side booth, silently nodding to a few of the dozens of talent agents, managers and lawyers who hold court at the Beverly Hills restaurant (no one at the Grill interrupts anyone -- they're all too important). He slid into the green vinyl booth, ordered a quick two-course meal and exited as silently as he came in.

It was a subtle performance, on par with the one that earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor in "The Quiet American." And its message was clear: Remember me when you vote.

On any given weekday, the Hollywood lunch is a fraught affair, where the industry's most powerful scramble for the right seat in the right place, and, once they get it, adhere to a specific code of behavior. And never is it more intense than in these final days before the Academy Awards. Nominees like Caine are in town, eager to see and be seen. The regular battery of money men -- and they are almost all men -- are even more eager to flaunt their clients and their power to get things done. At this moment, every nominee is a winner, and they all want to exploit that little bit of extra wattage.

"Everyone pushes hard," says talent manager Bernie Brillstein, noting that lunch now is a business meeting, never social. "Everyone is scared" they will fall behind, he adds.

Finding the town's power players at lunchtime is easy. They are all crowded together at a handful of restaurants where the midday meal has become a cutthroat game of musical chairs. Corporate consolidation and the tightening economy have left more entertainment industry power in fewer hands. "Fewer people have the big expense accounts. Fewer people can get away with 20% tips," says entertainment attorney Ken Ziffren. Fewer restaurants, and fewer power tables, remain in the game.

Where once there were a dozen hot spots, now there are only two places at the top of everyone's list: the Grill on the Alley and Barney Greengrass, the restaurant on top of Barneys New York in Beverly Hills. Both are within walking distance of the home offices of most of the major talent agencies.

"Lunch may be a cultural institution here but people want to get it over with fast," says Bert Fields, another veteran Hollywood attorney.

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The strut

After "Bringing Down the House" opened as the top grossing film a couple of weekends ago, Steve Martin ate lunch at the Grill the following Monday. "After a big opening, you go to the Grill to be congratulated," says producer Tom Pollock, who had done the same thing with his producing partner, Ivan Reitman, when their comedy, "Old School," opened well the week before. "If your movie doesn't open, you eat a Big Mac in the office," he says.

The Barney Greengrass crowd is younger and hipper than the Grill's, with more women and celebrities such as Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman. The dining room is jammed with regulars who want the back corner tables with an easy sightline to the front desk so they can note arrivals, where they sit and decide whether they should make a point of stopping by on the way out. The small, tightly packed square room makes table-hopping difficult, which suits Hollywood players, who have perfected the silent nod of recognition.

Celebrities typically want a table outside on the patio and rarely care which one, says Sharyn Kervyn, the restaurant's general manager. But the behind-the-scenes types are intense about who sits where. Senior agents have demanded that junior agents switch tables with them, even after the junior's lunch has been served.

When Michael Ovitz, co-founder of Creative Artists Agency, was gearing up to launch his second coming as a talent manager with the now defunct Artists Management Group, he held court at the "chef's table" near the Barney Greengrass kitchen. Ovitz courted staff, wooed clients and met with friends there in an orchestrated effort to redefine himself as a player on the rise, instead of a mogul on the mend after his notorious 1996 flameout as president of Walt Disney Co. It was at that table, Kervyn says, where he met with Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, pulling together the pieces for "Gangs of New York." (Once Ovitz's former underlings at CAA got wind of the powwows, Kervyn says, they started reserving the "chef's table" to annoy him, later canceling their reservations.)

At the Grill, manager Michael Goddard also conducts an elaborate game of musical chairs every day at 1 p.m., hustling to sit regulars at their favorite tables, while reservation calls come in as late as noon. Even as industry titans jockey for the home-booth advantage. Before he became Vivendi Universal Entertainment chief, Barry Diller was considering a deal with billionaire Ronald O. Perelman. Assistants to both men called Goddard half a dozen times the day of the lunch to make certain that their bosses each got his regular table.

Goddard reserved both tables, and waited.

Diller arrived early and was ushered to his preferred spot. Perelman arrived five minutes late, and he was reluctantly ushered into Diller's domain.

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The B list

Still, these are tough days for the Hollywood lunch. The Palm, Mr. Chow and Spago, with decades of history as Hollywood hangs, look comparatively wan during the daylight hours. Morton's, Maple Drive, Orsini Osteria and the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel are downright slow. The Ivy on Robertson Boulevard is full of Hollywood wives and only a sprinkling of the once omnipresent celebrities.

Ago, with its Hollywood owners including Robert De Niro and Miramax's Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, is never more than half full at lunch, although the clutch of eaters often includes heavyweights like ICM Chairman Jeff Berg, Viacom Entertainment Group Chairman Jonathan Dolgen and DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg.

These days, Diller more often eats on the studio lot, a practice that dates back to MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman, who held court at a rear table in Universal's commissary every day for decades. Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Michael Eisner never eats lunch anywhere but at the Rotunda, Disney's executive commissary. News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch can be found at his Malibu home on Carbon Beach when he's not eating in the Fox commissary, say people who know him.

It's not a question of the cuisine. These are protein and roughage eaters who like their food served naked. No surprises. No dribbles of sauce around the plate edge. If they can order their plain fare prepared just for them, all the better.

Lunch is, first and foremost, a business meeting, says Agostino Sciandri, executive chef and part owner of Ago. "Lunch is a very fast meal. They always want the same things."

Out of 100 lunches at the Palm, 30 will be steak orders, says Scott Fickling, general manager. The rest are salads with a few fish specials.

Says Michael Jackson, chairman of Universal Television, "Everyone is so concerned about their weight, they choose the blandest food imaginable. If there were no food, would anyone notice?

"They should have 'The Restaurant of the Empty Plate.' Hold the food and increase the prices for sitting at a table with fine bone china and mineral water. Everyone would pay, have their meeting and go," he says.

Says Marty Bowen, a literary agent at United Talent Agency, "It's macho to show self-control. I am strong. I don't eat bread. No one eats dessert."

And no one orders so much as a glass of wine, says Jackson, a native of London, who notices that the table always "goes quiet" when he orders his usual gin and tonic. "It's jealousy and also fear, fear that in some small way you are slightly insane," says Jackson. "What is all of this denial about? It tells you that they fear the chaos that would ensue with a drink at lunch."

But even in the heyday of the three-martini lunch, the Hollywood crowd was never much for drinking: A single glass was the usual limit. Still, it was more fun then, recalls Brillstein, the talent manager. Everyone ate at Scandia on Sunset Boulevard or in Beverly Hills at the Brown Derby, Jimmy's or the Polo Lounge. Celebrities were a regular part of the scene even as recently as 10 years ago.

"No more," Brillstein says. "And no one laughs anymore. I can't remember the last time someone called and said, 'Let's go to lunch and have a few laughs.' "

"At Ma Maison, David Janssen and Orson Welles came in and would have a drink with lunch," says Wolfgang Puck, remembering his days as a chef at the La Cienega Boulevard restaurant. "Lunch is much faster-paced now. A salad and iced tea. No drinking. The business climate has changed. Celebrities are not out there as in the old times, that's for sure."

The Hollywood lunch may have transcended food and drink, but it remains fixated on the one thing that truly sustains it: power. And, at least in the restaurants, Hollywood power is defined by the men in the business willing to work the scene on a daily basis.

"Lunch is how we all got to know each other," says Fields. "It's the hustle."

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Where are the women?

While women have climbed to the heights of the industry, they typically have done so through the studios. Sony Pictures Entertainment Vice Chairman Amy Pascal, Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider and Paramount Pictures Chairman Sherry Lansing take most of their meals in the studio commissary. Agents and producers travel to where they hold court, not the other way around.

In the restaurants where agents and lawyers rule, most of the women have opted out of the game. Melanie Cook, an attorney who represents producer Scott Rudin, eats nearly every lunch in a restaurant with an agent or producer -- but rarely at the Grill or Barney Greengrass. A few years ago, she started frequenting a Beverly Hills Japanese restaurant, Sai. Within months, it became a hot spot for young agents.

"I went twice a week to Sai. Had my own table. I took everyone there," Cook says.

It takes a considerable commitment of time and money to be a player at a regular industry spot. For starters, only people who eat out every weekday, limiting themselves to one or, at most, two restaurants would be considered regulars. After months of such devotion, perhaps that person would be seated at one of the better booths at the Palm, says Scott Fickling, its general manager.

"Jim Wiatt [president and co-chief executive of the William Morris Agency] gets the first booth, unless [producer] Dick Zanuck is here. Then Jim gets bumped. There is a pecking order," says Fickling. "It's based on how often people come."

Each restaurant has its power tables, invariably situated to allow both audio privacy and an easy view of the rest of the room. At the Grill and the Palm, those are the front booths. At Barney Greengrass, it's a back corner table. Being seated at a table for two in the middle of any room is an insult -- and can undo years of image-building.

Young agents, fearful of being embarrassed in front of Hollywood's old guard, won't make a reservation at the Grill until they are sure Goddard knows their names and won't make them wait in the breezeway until the VIPs are seated, according to several agents.

"The purpose of the Grill is the perception that you are in The Club. It can elevate your status," says UTA's Bowen.

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Son of Hollywood

If Goddard seems particularly adept at the dance, there's a reason: He's the rare Hollywood insider manning a restaurant door. Even before joining the Grill's staff 11 years ago, he was on a first-name basis with most of the town through his grandfather, Henry Rogers, founder of one of the industry's first public relations firms; his father, Mark Goddard, star of "Lost in Space"; or one of his stepfathers, film producer Mike Medavoy.

"I couldn't do what I do if I hadn't learned it from Mike," he says, adding that he considers himself "the host of a party."

To preserve the appearance of power and prestige in Hollywood, it's important to have the front of the house man on your side. Goddard keeps up with what's happening in the lives of his regulars. "Congratulate people," says Goddard. "It makes them feel good."

"Everyone takes care of us at Christmas," the Palm's Fickling says, pulling a $500 Barneys gift certificate out of his wallet, a gift from a regular customer. "There is door money every night, an extra $20 in the hand. And they are all good tippers, 20% to 25%."

Talent agencies send "a couple of grand" a year to the door managers at the key restaurants "in addition to the daily tips," says one agent who asked not to be identified.

The etiquette for the Hollywood lunch is not always what the rest of the world considers fine manners. It's acceptable for agents and lawyers to take cell phone calls during lunch and diddle with their BlackBerry e-mail devices (as long as they're kept off the table).

However, "you don't see people getting up during lunch to talk to each other. It's just on the way in and on the way out," says Fickling, who counts George Clooney, Adam Sandler, Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey among his regulars.

Tardiness is unacceptable. Five minutes is considered rude, longer is lethal.

If the lunch plans go awry or the reservation isn't right, no one blames the restaurant, fearing they may fall out of favor with the influential door manager and fall behind in the pecking order. But this is Hollywood, after all, and someone has to be blamed.

Most people whip out a cell phone and scream at their assistant.

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Here's how it's done

If you're going to be part of the Hollywood scene, you need to know the rules:

Reservations: Usually made the same day, often after 11 a.m. Regulars never show up without one.

Greetings: Say hello to other diners on your way in or out, never in the middle of the meal. The nod is preferred.

The Nod: May be embellished with a "hello."

The Fly-By: Walk to the restroom down one side of the restaurant and back the other to see and be seen. Do not talk; the Nod OK if eye contact made.

The Exit: If doing business with someone who also happens to be at the restaurant, stop, exchange pleasantries as leaving and introduce guests.

Cell phones: Never make calls, only receive -- and on silent ring.

BlackBerries: E-mail allowed if done discreetly under the table.

Two courses: Fine, but must be eaten in less than an hour.

Tardiness: Regulars are never late.

Tipping: 20% to 25%

The door tip: Fold a $20 bill three times in the palm; quickly shake door manager's hand on the way out. (Never offer money to get a better table.)

The tab: Lawyers reach for check last; agents are expected to first. Some folks always pay to stay one favor ahead.

Ignoring the negative: Never mention someone's latest lawsuit or indictment.

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Where the industry grazes

When you don't have time to drive to Beverly Hills for the Grill or Barney Greengrass, these local spots will suffice for a quick power bite:

Ca' del Sole (North Hollywood): A stone's throw from Universal for producers who want privacy. Also a DreamWorks hang.

Campanile (Los Angeles) and Pinot Bistro (Studio City): Two halfway points where Burbank-based studio folks meet Westside agents and lawyers.

Chaya Brasserie (West Hollywood): Everyone with business at New Line Cinema.

Delmonico's (Los Angeles): Lower-level Fox executives with modest expense accounts go here.

La Cachette (Century City): The top Fox brass frequent this more exclusive spot.

L.A. Farm (Santa Monica): Producers and directors with offices in Santa Monica's loft district come to chow here.

Orso (Los Angeles): Outdoor patio preferred by publicists and businesswomen who would be lost at the Grill.

Sushi restaurants on Ventura Boulevard: Everyone working in Burbank has a favorite.

Toscana (Brentwood): First choice for a cross-section of power players when they are on the west side of the 405.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday March 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction Hollywood lunch -- The caption accompanying the illustration with "The Hollywood Lunch" article in Wednesday's Food section incorrectly identified two of the figures shown. From the left are Jeffrey Katzenberg, Barry Diller and David Geffen; not Geffen, Diller, Katzenberg. The same article also mistakenly said the restaurant, Ma Maison, had been on La Cienega Boulevard; it was on Melrose Avenue. For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 26, 2003 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction Hollywood lunch -- In the March 19 Food section, the caption accompanying an illustration incorrectly identified two of the figures shown. From the left are Jeffrey Katzenberg, then Barry Diller and David Geffen; not Geffen, Diller, then Katzenberg. Also, the story mistakenly said the restaurant, Ma Maison, had been on La Cienega Boulevard; it was on Melrose Avenue.
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