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Food You'll Never Eat : Film industry insiders are going back to studio commissaries when they do lunch. Blame it on the economy: You don't score points by eating at expensive restaurants anymore

June 27, 1993|BECKY SUE EPSTEIN and CHARLES PERRY | Becky Sue Epstein is a free-lance writer based in Boston. Charles Perry is a staff writer for The Times' Food section.

In the '70s and '80s, movie people signed up for the gourmet revolution at least as fast as anybody else. Previously, stars had basically wanted a plush environment and a friendly staff; suddenly they were going to the ultimate no-decor foodie hangout, Spago. A restaurant had to be willing to indulge the movie people, but exciting cuisine had become all-important.

That was then, this is now. Today the talent agencies, traditional patrons of Los Angeles' hot restaurants, are suffering. One agency folded last year, and 100 agents were let go when the William Morris Agency bought Triad. Meanwhile, artist rosters continue to be cut, spending limits are being imposed, and some agents have actually had their credit cards pulled. As a result, a couple of famous Beverly Hills restaurants are complaining about lost business--to say nothing of overdrawn tabs.

Hollywood's instinctive solution has been to go back to the neglected studio commissaries. They're cheaper than restaurants, but they have the same potential for schmoozing and table-hopping and the all-important Hollywood activity of being seen with people. And they have a real advantage over any restaurant--to eat at a commissary, you have to have an invitation from somebody who "is officed"--that's studio-ese for "has an office" at the studio. That means nobody has to deal with gawkers from the general public. (The authors visited seven of them as guests of people who have offices on the studio lots.)

Like all workplace dining places, the studio commissaries have very reasonable prices. The fact that most people pay cash is a pretty clear sign of that (you can also use credit cards, and on some lots there are people who just sign and put the meal on their accounts).

So the commissaries are booming. People in the industry are trading notes about which studios have the better ones. At another time, the biggies might have been dining out, but in recent months you could see Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas and Anthony Hopkins all at the Sony commissary, which isn't even one of the hot ones.

The studios are responding to this, though not all with the same rapidity--several have been sold or relocated in the last year--and the result is not necessarily that eating on the lot is just like eating in a restaurant. Most studios have two levels of food service: a cafeteria for a quick sandwich and a more restaurant-like dining room for more significant, and more leisurely, meals. But particularly in the dining rooms, they are upgrading their food, broadening the selections, adding a fashionable tray of variety breads.

Still, commissary dining is not quite like restaurant dining. Since the diners are under the eye of their peers and the studio itself, a self-imposed code of culinary correctness prevails. People are reluctant to be seen ordering dessert, which explains a lot of perfunctory dessert lists. The tastiest choice on a menu is likely to be a salad, since salad is absolutely the most culinary correct thing to eat.

Paramount

"The studio commissaries have always lost money," observes producer Marvin Worth, sitting at one of the power tables at the Paramount commissary. (The power seats are in the corners of the big, square patio; the masses mostly sit indoors, in a dining room that looks like a cross between a gazebo and an Art Deco-era cruise ship.)

"The original reason for them in the old days," Worth continues, "was to keep the actors on the lot at lunchtime so they wouldn't go out and get drunk. They lost money, but they kept the studio from losing hours."

The '90s commissaries, by contrast, offer wine but nobody will touch it, and they have culinary ambitions. Sherry Lansing, who has been sitting at a power table in the opposite corner and now comes over to say hello to Worth's lunch partner--music and sports publicist Gary Stromberg--and to congratulate Worth on getting "Malcolm X" produced, is Paramount's studio head. Her ascent to power is expected to mean major changes all around, but the Paramount commissary has already been soliciting menu suggestions (most of them have turned out to be for pasta and vegetarian dishes).

As sampled one recent day, the food at Paramount is roughly in the middle of the pack as movie studio commissary food goes. There are a couple of fashionable appetizers, such as crab cakes. Several hip pastas are listed (black linguine; Cajun fettuccine; angel hair with your choice of chicken and pesto, or artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes, or fresh tomatoes and extra-virgin olive oil), though the bestseller is tendorcho --an unfashionably rich dish of cheese ravioli in a cream sauce flavored with smoked turkey.

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