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Political Stargrazing

Where L.A.'s Elite meet to eat

August 13, 2000|BETH SHUSTER | Beth Shuster is a Times Staff Writer whose last piece for the magazine was a profile of Councilman Mike Hernandez

In Los Angeles, politicos and their proteges make three crucial--and sometimes career-making--decisions per day: where to go for breakfast, lunch and dinner. * These City Council members, county supervisors, school board members, lobbyists, lawyers and, yes, even bureaucrats, usually know just the right restaurant where they can conduct business. They base their decision on any number of factors. Food often isn't one of them; access to other power brokers is. * Howard Sunkin, a top City Hall lobbyist

who works for veteran political consultant Joe Cerrell, stresses the combination of environment and companionship: "It's good to be seen in places like the Pacific Dining Car, to be seen with important people at places like that. I can move to San Francisco and eat at the Washington Square Bar & Grill or Moose's . . . which are huge political hangouts, but if I don't have someone with me, I'm just anybody."

For those seeking to be somebody, the Pacific Dining Car, just west of downtown at 1310 W. 6th St., remains a top pick for local and state politicians and their simpaticos. And you can bet they are all on expense accounts. The steakhouse, which opened in 1921 when the Hollywood Bowl was under construction, recently changed its prices so that steaks are now a la carte at dinner and vegetables are priced separately. But for all practical purposes, meals still are steep. A filet mignon, usually cooked to perfection, is $29.95--at lunch.

No matter. The Pacific Dining Car, with its wide, burgundy brocade booths, leather chairs and extensive wine list, has been attracting political luminaries for decades. Cerrell has a regular table, as does trial attorney Tom Girardi, whose role in helping win a $333-million settlement against Pacific Gas & Electric was reenacted by Peter Coyote in the film "Erin Brockovich." A host of others show up for power breakfasts and lunches, including state Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, City Atty. James K. Hahn and state Sen. Richard Polanco.

The Pacific Dining Car is the kind of place where everyone glances up over large menus to see who's arriving. The kind of place where the shoeshine man in the valet-only parking lot knows your name--if you come often enough. The kind of place where the following pronouncement was recently overheard: "This is the year of Latinos in power."

Cerrell and Sunkin say they lunched with a City Council candidate there the other day and, Sunkin says, "We got as much work done sitting at the table as we did arriving and departing."

Any tour of high-profile hangouts must include a mention of downtown's California Club at 6th and Flower streets, which for much of its 112-year history was an old-school, male-members-only bastion of corporate and civic power. It was created by a small group of real estate developers, bankers and writers who sought a gentleman's club where they could smoke cigars and cut deals.

Until as recently as the 1980s, the club had a history of discriminating against blacks and Jews. Former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the city's first African American mayor, made it his policy never to eat there.

With loosening membership requirements, however, the club has become popular with women and other minorities, though patrons still must be accompanied by a member.

The other day, two mayoral hopefuls sat across the room from one another with their key advisors, and perhaps kept an eye on each other as well.

All of this networking proves a bit much for some elected officials. Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says he favors more private restaurants such as 410 Boyd--a light, airy place that sits on an odd stretch of downtown near Skid Row.

"I always have them read me the specials and then I order the chicken Caesar," says Yaroslavsky. (410 Boyd, which offers "global-eclectic" cuisine, also is a City Hall hangout.)

Other--and less expensive--eateries favored by local pols include downtown's venerable Philippe (1001 N. Alameda St.), the self-proclaimed home of the French dip sandwich, and Langer's Deli (704 S. Alvarado), near MacArthur Park. Langer's attracts union types as well as elected officials.

"Best pastrami west of New York City," says Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. District Atty. Gil Garcetti was spotted lunching there recently, too.

The power tour also stops at the Original Pantry Cafe, the restaurant at 877 S. Figueroa St. owned by Mayor Richard Riordan. Open 24 hours a day, the downtown landmark is known for its big breakfasts--including pancakes sweetened with a touch of vanilla--and its owner. "Clearly," says Peter Hidalgo, Riordan's press secretary, "the mayor's favorite place is the Pantry." Those who want to curry favor with the mayor (including Contreras), tend to drop by for a quick bite.

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