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The Hollywood lunch

Nobody really eats. It's all about power, and never more so than right now.

March 19, 2003|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Everyone goes to the Grill on the Alley for a reason. And it isn't to eat.

Last Wednesday, Michael Caine arrived precisely at 1 p.m. He made his way to a choice side booth, silently nodding to a few of the dozens of talent agents, managers and lawyers who hold court at the Beverly Hills restaurant (no one at the Grill interrupts anyone -- they're all too important). He slid into the green vinyl booth, ordered a quick two-course meal and exited as silently as he came in.

It was a subtle performance, on par with the one that earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor in "The Quiet American." And its message was clear: Remember me when you vote.

On any given weekday, the Hollywood lunch is a fraught affair, where the industry's most powerful scramble for the right seat in the right place, and, once they get it, adhere to a specific code of behavior. And never is it more intense than in these final days before the Academy Awards. Nominees like Caine are in town, eager to see and be seen. The regular battery of money men -- and they are almost all men -- are even more eager to flaunt their clients and their power to get things done. At this moment, every nominee is a winner, and they all want to exploit that little bit of extra wattage.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Hollywood lunch -- The caption accompanying the illustration with "The Hollywood Lunch" article in Wednesday's Food section incorrectly identified two of the figures shown. From the left are Jeffrey Katzenberg, Barry Diller and David Geffen; not Geffen, Diller, Katzenberg. The same article also mistakenly said the restaurant, Ma Maison, had been on La Cienega Boulevard; it was on Melrose Avenue.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 26, 2003 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Hollywood lunch -- In the March 19 Food section, the caption accompanying an illustration incorrectly identified two of the figures shown. From the left are Jeffrey Katzenberg, then Barry Diller and David Geffen; not Geffen, Diller, then Katzenberg. Also, the story mistakenly said the restaurant, Ma Maison, had been on La Cienega Boulevard; it was on Melrose Avenue.

"Everyone pushes hard," says talent manager Bernie Brillstein, noting that lunch now is a business meeting, never social. "Everyone is scared" they will fall behind, he adds.

Finding the town's power players at lunchtime is easy. They are all crowded together at a handful of restaurants where the midday meal has become a cutthroat game of musical chairs. Corporate consolidation and the tightening economy have left more entertainment industry power in fewer hands. "Fewer people have the big expense accounts. Fewer people can get away with 20% tips," says entertainment attorney Ken Ziffren. Fewer restaurants, and fewer power tables, remain in the game.

Where once there were a dozen hot spots, now there are only two places at the top of everyone's list: the Grill on the Alley and Barney Greengrass, the restaurant on top of Barneys New York in Beverly Hills. Both are within walking distance of the home offices of most of the major talent agencies.

"Lunch may be a cultural institution here but people want to get it over with fast," says Bert Fields, another veteran Hollywood attorney.

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The strut

After "Bringing Down the House" opened as the top grossing film a couple of weekends ago, Steve Martin ate lunch at the Grill the following Monday. "After a big opening, you go to the Grill to be congratulated," says producer Tom Pollock, who had done the same thing with his producing partner, Ivan Reitman, when their comedy, "Old School," opened well the week before. "If your movie doesn't open, you eat a Big Mac in the office," he says.

The Barney Greengrass crowd is younger and hipper than the Grill's, with more women and celebrities such as Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman. The dining room is jammed with regulars who want the back corner tables with an easy sightline to the front desk so they can note arrivals, where they sit and decide whether they should make a point of stopping by on the way out. The small, tightly packed square room makes table-hopping difficult, which suits Hollywood players, who have perfected the silent nod of recognition.

Celebrities typically want a table outside on the patio and rarely care which one, says Sharyn Kervyn, the restaurant's general manager. But the behind-the-scenes types are intense about who sits where. Senior agents have demanded that junior agents switch tables with them, even after the junior's lunch has been served.

When Michael Ovitz, co-founder of Creative Artists Agency, was gearing up to launch his second coming as a talent manager with the now defunct Artists Management Group, he held court at the "chef's table" near the Barney Greengrass kitchen. Ovitz courted staff, wooed clients and met with friends there in an orchestrated effort to redefine himself as a player on the rise, instead of a mogul on the mend after his notorious 1996 flameout as president of Walt Disney Co. It was at that table, Kervyn says, where he met with Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, pulling together the pieces for "Gangs of New York." (Once Ovitz's former underlings at CAA got wind of the powwows, Kervyn says, they started reserving the "chef's table" to annoy him, later canceling their reservations.)

At the Grill, manager Michael Goddard also conducts an elaborate game of musical chairs every day at 1 p.m., hustling to sit regulars at their favorite tables, while reservation calls come in as late as noon. Even as industry titans jockey for the home-booth advantage. Before he became Vivendi Universal Entertainment chief, Barry Diller was considering a deal with billionaire Ronald O. Perelman. Assistants to both men called Goddard half a dozen times the day of the lunch to make certain that their bosses each got his regular table.

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