Power plays and Panda Express

Special to The Times

Century City is under attack. In a “300”-like assault, two silk-shirted waves of flashy Hollywood agents have infiltrated the Westside’s most famous -- and famously nondescript -- office-park neighborhood, hitherto best known for a mall (the Westfield) and a hotel (the Century Plaza).

The invaders consist of two rival armies. The Creative Artists Agency minions were the first to land, having moved into their gargantuan new headquarters at 2000 Avenue of the Stars in January. Then, on Feb. 20, International Creative Management staked its claim to the territory, moving into three floors of the MGM Tower.

Although both agencies traded in their previous Wilshire Boulevard/Beverly Hills headquarters primarily for reasons of space, the moves are also symbolic. CAA is now physically severed from a controversial ghost from the past: co-founder Michael Ovitz, who owns the agency’s former headquarters. ICM has left behind vestiges of its history as well -- like the file cabinets Ari Emanuel pillaged in the middle of the night when he left to form the rival agency Endeavor.


And naturally, being agents, there are power plays. At CAA, harrumphing was heard over the fact that one of the best offices went to a hockey agent (imagine!). Office-size envy is less of a problem at ICM, although assistants have been grumbling about a lack of privacy (their desks don’t have partitions).

But that’s small change compared with the tactical maneuvers required for eating lunch. Imagine, if you will, Armani-uniformed agents standing in line with soccer moms at the Westfield mall’s food court or balancing plastic trays loaded up with beer-battered chicken or Fuddruckers fries. “With all the suits and sunglasses, it feels like “The Matrix: The Food Court,” joked manager-producer J.C. Spink (“A History of Violence”).

And with such brazenly public dining come perils. “You can’t really talk business because you’ve got CAA right there. And they’ve got us,” said an ICM agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity (silence is the agency policy when dealing with the press). “I’ve heard people at CAA having their conversations -- you can hear everything.”

To practitioners of a business built around power lunches, no hardship has been more disagreeable than Century City’s restaurant anemia. “It’s atrocious,” one agent said of the local culinary portfolio, which includes the blandly named Gulfstream, Breeze, Harper’s and Houston’s.

Their previous temples were insulated from the indignities of the life of the average Angeleno, whether you were snuggled into a red banquette at the Grill -- the gold standard for power lunching -- or schmoozing with A-listers at Mr. Chow, Ago or Morton’s.

Agents’ collective prayer: that restaurateur Tom Colicchio’s Craft -- a Century City-bound offshoot of his popular eatery in New York City -- will open soon.

Until then, they’re left to slum it -- and aggressively negotiate their table bookings. The competition for prime-time dining is fierce. One agent said that when he tried to make a reservation at Gulfstream, the first opening was at 1:45 p.m. Others say they’re avoiding the crush by booking tables at the not-very-powerful 11:30 a.m.

But leave it to L.A.’s most masterful negotiators to figure out that although Houston’s doesn’t technically take reservations, calling a few hours ahead of time to book a table is kosher.

“We do ‘call-in’s,’ ” said a hostess at Houston’s, making quotation marks in the air to explain the restaurant’s policy. It was only 12:45 p.m. and she already looked weary. She had just fielded a “call-in” from CAA, followed by one from ICM.

And what of the non-agents? Even regular folk are having to learn new strategies for finding lunch spots at restaurants or the mall food court. “When I come with a group, we usually post one person to find a seat,” said Susan Amsden, a Century City lawyer standing in a long line at California Crisp.

“It’s gotten worse in the last three weeks,” said a retired banker waiting in a long line at Barenaked Yogurt.

Around him, people -- many of them in suits -- were balancing trays, looking desperately for a free table. One young man grunted, “This sucks!” as he wheeled around and continued his search in another direction.

“I live in Santa Monica and come over and kill an hour,” said the retired banker. “Because of the table problem, I come at 11:30 a.m. They’re absolutely going to need more tables.”

There are winners here: Retailers at the mall are loving the new foot traffic. Agents’ assistants are swarming Sephora, showing up with their boss’ credit cards to replenish supplies of high-end beauty products. Managers at shops such as Ann Taylor Loft and Pink, the men’s luxury shirt store, said they have seen an uptick in business since the agencies’ arrivals.

“One agent buys one of our shirts and suddenly we’ve got three more agent clients the next day,” said Curtis Orthmann, a manager at Pink.

“They buy the hipper, slim-fitting shirts,” he said, adding that he thought most of his clients were from ICM.

Beverly Hills has so far been spared wreckage. It seems that as long as Century City remains a culinary desert, the former home to Hollywood’s pedicured foot soldiers will be the preferred oasis.

Michael Goddard, the Grill’s maitre d’ and manager, said that when he first heard about the agencies’ departure from Beverly Hills, he feared that he might lose clientele. There was even talk about starting up valet and shuttle services to make the Grill more easily accessible from Century City.

So far, his fears have proved unfounded. ICM’s chairman and chief executive, Jeff Berg, was spotted lunching with Mick Jagger at the Grill just a week after his agency’s move. “We still have more agents than tables,” said Goddard, rattling off a list of names. “I talked about it with [CAA agent] Fred Spektor and said, ‘If you have any problems, let us know how we can help you out.’ ”

Just how long the detente will last remains to be seen.