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COVER STORY

What He Really Wants to Do Is Direct

But for Now, Restaurateur Michael Chow Will Have to Be Content With Opening Yet Another Stylish Palace of Food, Eurochow in Westwood.

July 18, 1999|CARLA HALL | Carla Hall is a Times staff writer. Her last piece for the magazine was about the popularity of straight hair

Michael Chow is explaining where in his new Westwood restaurant he will seat the famous, the unknown, the beautiful, the ugly, the tall, the short, the fat, the thin.

He sits in a booth with a sculpted leather back, both hands caressing the polished acrylic table that he painstakingly selected to furnish this ambitious new gastronomic production. Chow has micromanaged every detail of Eurochow, from the cut of the veal to the hardware that secures the tasseled ropes of the curtains. Now he turns his attention to the patrons.

"Like the opening shot of a movie, where there's only one right place to put the camera," he says, "there's only one right seat for each person."

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that Chow, who for 25 years has presided over the celebrity-favored Mr Chow in Beverly Hills, is himself a frustrated director. So in his latest venture, did you really think he would give up the job of casting?

He scans the mezzanine, a wraparound second-story loft overlooking tables cloaked in white cloths. Three tables flank the front railing, the most visible seats in the restaurant.

'I think you put a lot of women there because when you come in, you see them first," Chow says with a chuckle.

What about a couple?

"Not so simple. First you have to decide whether they belong to upstairs or downstairs."

Chow, who has long admitted to seating people according to a star system at his Beverly Hills restaurant, insists that some of his judgments are practical. He can't put a very tall man in a booth. He can't have a celebrity like Madonna on display in the single table that sits in a theaterlike balcony box. (She'd probably get the tall guy's booth.)

"If I put someone very shy on the balcony, they will be uncomfortable," he says.

But how do you know someone is shy?

"Instinctively."

What if you want to put me downstairs and I want to sit upstairs?

"How can you know more than I do when I designed the restaurant?"

Chow suggests that however he seats me, it's for my own good. But I know too much already; I know if I arrive with a group of girlfriends and we're not seated at a table upstairs by the railing, it's because we weren't deemed attractive enough.

He listens soberly. "OK," Chow says, "I'll make a note--when you come in, no way will you be seated there. Hahahahahaha!"

Can you imagine what he'd be like as a film director? Autocratic, audacious and, just when you think you have him pegged, unexpectedly wry. All the traits that have distinguished him in the arena of tables and silverware and uplighting (a favorite ploy) would serve him sell in Hollywood, the world he has yet to conquer. For now, he must content himself with his most unusual restaurant, the $4-million Eurochow (he prefers to capitalize every letter, but we don't), starring a resuscitated L.A. landmark and--as always--Michael Chow.

"If I may be so bold, a lot of people were influenced by me in this city and in other parts of the world," says the 60-year-old restaurateur.

Whether you are a fan or a critic of Michael Chow and his food, he has earned a spot on the L.A. cultural landscape with his semi-legendary Beverly Hills restaurant, Mr Chow. No period, no "restaurant" and, God forbid, no apostrophe S. ("Minimalism at its best," he says.) The gathering spot on North Camden Drive has survived a quarter century--that's about three lifetimes in restaurant years--in mercurial Los Angeles, serving up Chinese food with a dollop of casual glamour. At the 1974 opening, Clint Eastwood and Eartha Kitt rubbed shoulders with Robert Wise and Olivia de Havilland. Not only was Chow's new restaurant the "antithesis of Chinoiserie," as he puts it--no red lanterns, no dragons--Mr Chow offered a sexy, glittery experience in a town where "elegant dining" meant eating in a stodgy hotel (or Chasen's) and "casual" meant Du-par's.

Over the years, Mr Chow has been avant garde and passe, in and out, hot and not so hot. Never a favorite with critics--initial reviewers seemed reserved and suspicious of all the gloss--the restaurant has been generally ignored by foodies. But in the 1970s, when even well-heeled restaurant-goers thought of Chinese food as the cheap takeout fare on the corner, the expensive Mr Chow was a revelation with its beautifully presented green prawns and Peking duck and hand-pulled noodles. The regulars--entertainment industry folk, Westside professionals, the artists that Chow has befriended and has fed gratis in exchange for their art--never stopped going there. Or if they did, they eventually came back.

On a recent Sunday night, Kirk Douglas held court at the best table in the house; rising star Tobey Maguire and Quincy Jones' daughter Rashida supped later in the evening at a nearby table. At the opposite corner from the Douglas table, record industry giants Ahmet Ertegun and Phil Spector sat with a large group.

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