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Bistro to Stars Goes Out in Style: Le Soleil Sets on Ma Maison--for Now

November 18, 1985|MARYLOUISE OATES | Times Staff Writer

Ma Maison--the bistro that proved Hollywood can love something even if it isn't perfect--closed last week. Longtime patrons pronounced the event the most successful closing in restaurant history.

The Rollses overflowed from the parking lot into the street, and the devoted denizens of al fresco dining crowded under the stained and sagging canvas tenting that covers most of the restaurant.

They hugged. They kissed. They reminisced. Those with inclination and ability spurted into French.

Agents did a little agitprop business. Waiters snapped pictures and autographed menus. Two regulars complained and got a better table. They all said that they would be back in 23 months, when the new Ma Maison opens on a site several blocks away. And a lot of ashtrays with the distinctive blue logo found their way into pockets and purses.

A 'Momentous' Day

That peripatetic diner-out, Henry Berger--waiting for his wife, Jayne, at a very good table near the door--said he'd probably had 1,000 meals at Ma Maison during the last dozen years and that this day was indeed "momentous."

After all, Patrick Terrail was out of the restaurant business. Temporarily.

Terrail had sold the Melrose Avenue property for well over $2 million, including the building housing the cooking school in which he was partners, Ma Cuisine, and the restaurant itself. For years, this hodgepodge eatery had been the first place visitors wanted to see when they hit L.A.--and it confirmed every Eastern seaboard notion of what Tinseltown is all about.

Newcomers were amazed at the restaurant which always looked like it was under construction--the floor covered with Astroturf, dingy umbrellas hung from the canvas ceiling, two light-up plastic geese perched in the corners, air-conditioning ducts hung low and sliding glass doors that assured the diners that they were really in an add-on rumpus room somewhere in New Jersey.

But, by gosh, there were stars.

Ma Maison drew like a '50s B movie. For years, the restaurant had an unlisted phone number--655-1991--and the tables at Friday lunch were as sought after as choice roles. Alicia Buttons, at lunch the last day (and joined by her comedian husband, Red Buttons, for dinner), said that her habit of Friday lunch at Ma Maison was so ingrained that several years ago her then-10-year-old son carried a handwritten card that read: "Mommy . . . Fridays . . . 655-1991."

In recent history the tacky touches got a tad too tattered even for the suave host Terrail to pull off. Business slackened. Things kept happening--the competition from restaurants owned and staffed by former Terrail chefs and cooks, the opening of scores of new hot restaurants, the publicity linking the restaurant's name to the tragedy when the much-liked young actress Dominique Dunne was murdered by a former boyfriend, John Sweeney, a Ma Maison chef.

There's twist of bitter lemon in Terrail's conversation when he jokes about staffing other restaurants--Spago, which his former chef, Wolfgang Puck, opened; or Bistango, opened by former Ma Maison chef Claude Segal; or City Restaurant, opened by former cook, Susan Feniger.

But the last day it was all love and kisses.

A conservatively dressed couple stood in the doorway, drinking champagne and casually necking. Terrail explained: "I tell them always, make a reservation either at 12:30 or 1:30. But they insist on 1 p.m. so they have to wait. And they neck."

Ma Maison always had a lot of elan--but on the rocks. "What Patrick did that was special was create a club atmosphere at the restaurant," said film producer Sidney Beckerman. Beckerman was part of the poker-playing "boys table." He started out with Terrail and, even after many of the more famous faces dropped away, kept coming back. Beckerman was joined at lunch last week by other regulars, like David Begelman and Tom Gallagher, then they returned at dinner with their wives--Marion Beckerman, Gladyce Begelman and Suzanne Pleshette.

At lunch, TV personality Sarah Purcell chatted with Mel Torme, who was lunching with actress Andrea Marcovicci and Henry Jaglom, the writer, actor, director of the film "Always." At dinner, James Coburn turned up to dine. At lunch there were open-neck shirts and leather jackets, and, although many of the women came for this special night in black dresses and heavyweight jewelry, still present at the dinner hour were leather jackets and open-neck shirts.

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