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STYLE & CULTURE | AL MARTINEZ

Without reservation, a doyenne of dining

October 20, 2003|AL MARTINEZ

She's as skinny as a chopstick and probably weighs less than Calista Flockhart, but when Joan Luther walks into a Beverly Hills restaurant, there's a stir in the room, like a breeze blowing in through the open door.

The maitre d' rushes up, waiters smile and nod, and sometimes the chef, often a celebrity himself, comes out to greet her. It might be one of the restaurants she represents as a publicist, it might not be. The effect is usually the same: She's a presence.

Luther is the queen of Beverly Hills restaurants, and some outside places too. She's the raspy voice of Aubergine/Troquet, as well as a barbecue place called the Pig. Newer, celebrity-haunted steakhouses like Mastro's are on her list, and so are established ones like Morton's. Ago, Alex, Chaya, Maple Drive, Citrine -- you name it, she's got it.

If you saw her at one of these places, you wouldn't figure her for its publicist and might even wonder what she was doing there. You'd expect a representative of, say, four-star Bastide to be young, chic, draped in the latest style and perhaps even fluttery. Luther is 75, intense, down-dressed and sometimes positively dour.

While she may call friends and clients alike "sweetie" and "my darling," she knows her business, her area, just about everyone important in L.A.'s media outlets and quite often the back story of the restaurant and people she represents.

Born in Los Angeles, she's made it her business to study its history, the way Ovid must have studied ancient Rome. Throw a name at her and she'll tell you how many times he's been married, how much money he's making and what kind of car he drives. Throw a district at her and she'll tell you how it's changed and who once lived there.

"Joan is not only a veteran of restaurants in L.A. but of L.A. itself," says Barbara Fairchild, editor in chief of Bon Appetit magazine and a longtime acquaintance of Luther. "She not only takes into consideration how a restaurant fits into the culture but the culture itself."

She's part of the culture, part of the street and part of the elite. Pragmatic, tough but also diplomatic, she lives in a Beverly Hills condo filled with artifacts of the world she has traveled with Bill, a retired investment banker and the husband of 56 years she calls "love" and "baby." An oil portrait of her, large brown eyes all-seeing, dominates the place they share with their carrot-eating little black Scottie, Darren.

Ask her about the painting and she'll tell you it's by Marion Pike of the famous Pike family in Pasadena, who was married to Thomas Pike. "We were having dinner one night, darling, and she wanted to do me, and did it in two hours. That was 30 years ago. She became very famous, and was Claudette Colbert's best friend."

Luther is wearing running pants, a T-shirt and sneakers. Her brown hair is boyishly short and flecked with gray. She's chatty but not effusive. The only child of Basque-German parents, she was raised in Catholic schools, attended USC and grew up wanting to be a film editor and a pilot. She was screen-tested at MGM but wasn't interested in the path of the starlet.

Her career began at Hollywood Park, where she worked as a "social publicist," taking celebrity photographs and getting them into one of the five major L.A. dailies that then existed. "I met the world in the director's room, sweetie. Omar Bradley, Nixon, Reagan, Alfred Vanderbilt, Paul Mellon -- you know."

She studied the food operations at the track "from the grandstands on up" and began doing publicity for Scandia, then one of L.A.'s premium eateries. From there, she moved on to become PR director for the Beverly Hills Rodeo Drive Committee, which is when I met her about 15 years ago, as she shepherded the mayor of Moscow through an exclusive men's store.

As the years passed and her reputation grew, she reached out from Beverly Hills into West Hollywood, Santa Monica and downtown L.A., basically a one-woman operation with big ambitions. A few months ago, she moved into the upper levels of restaurant staffing, helping to hire chefs and maitres d'. "My antenna," she says, "is always up."

Bob Spivak, owner of the Grill on the Alley, hired her 20 years ago, two months before the restaurant opened. "I interviewed some of the 'big ones,' " he says, "but she knew everything anyone needs to know about restaurants. Hardly a year goes by that we don't get mentioned in Vanity Fair, L.A. Magazine or Bon Appetit. She knows everyone."

Food isn't the most important element in her life. Restaurant design and management are. Sizzling with energy, she has plans to study 18 restaurants in New York and to check out the nightclubs too, then apply what she's learned to her kingdom in L.A. You'll recognize her if you're ever in one of her restaurants. There'll be a rustle in the room when she enters, and the maitre d', chef and maybe the owner will gather at the door as the skinny queen of Beverly Hills walks in.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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