Dining with the stars (or not) at L.A.'s power-lunch hot spots

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 3, 2010; 9:44 AM

It's late on a sunny morning in Beverly Hills, Calif., and we're sitting at a table on the rooftop of Barney Greengrass. As my husband busies himself, trying to ignore what I'm doing, I slowly peer around in my carefully chosen Los Angeles-style sunglasses, surreptitiously on a mission.

Now, since we're New Yorkers, you might think that bagels and sturgeon are something of a peculiar choice for our first meal in Los Angeles. But we have our reasons for eating in a restaurant that we could just as well go to back in Manhattan: Just across the street is a massive building with a giant "UTA" sign, a signal of the power within. That's the home of the United Talent Agency, whose client list includes Gwyneth Paltrow and Johnny Depp. William Morris Endeavor, another of the majors, is just around the corner.

In Manhattan, we tend to take celebrity sightings for granted. Al Pacino at the bar at Joe Allen in the Theater District? Yawn. Maggie Gyllenhaal snuggling up to Peter Sarsgaard at Wallse in the West Village? Who cares?

But L.A. and its celebrity-sighting possibilities offer a different level of excitement. Los Angeles, after all, is to celebrities what Paris is to fashion. This is where Hollywood works and plays. We've seen the pictures; we've read the stories. And now we're determined to see who we might bump into while we're here.

For all its glitz, Los Angeles is basically a company town. So for our quest, we've started by figuring out where the influential break bread - where agents have power lunches with their clients, where Hollywood lawyers gather to talk shop, where celebrities head for a reliable meal. We've polled Hollywood writer and journalist friends and come up with a sizable list.

The scene at Barney Greengrass is promising: Our fellow diners also sport sunglasses, and their cellphones rest beside their plates on the table. Leaning into conversations as much as we can while still appearing blase, we overhear discussions about months-long work trips to Bali and Europe. But however much we squint, trying to place faces, we see no stars. "It seems likely that they're not in the business," my husband volunteers, referring to the other patrons. Sullenly, I choose to ignore him.

Next, we find ourselves in Century City, looking over a lunch menu at Craft, a West Coast outpost of the Tom Colicchio restaurant in New York. One friend has described Craft as a "newish hot spot" because of its proximity to a number of entertainment law firms. The 300-seat restaurant is large and modern, surrounded by a large terrace with groups of cushioned banquettes. Since the outdoor seating is a little removed from the bustle of the restaurant, "it's a good spot for meetings with clients," my screenwriter friend Jim explains.

At 1 p.m., the place is full of tanned, nattily suited men of a certain age. The oysters and steak salad here are perfectly lovely, but they can't make up for our disappointment. Despite the repeated craning of our necks, we leave not having spotted anyone recognizable.

The next day, another screenwriter friend suggests meeting at Oliver Cafe, across the street from Barney Greengrass in an eye-catching round building, squat and gleaming white. "The food is good, and it's not too noisy," Gretchen whispers the moment we're seated.

"These are all people who come here for business lunches," she adds. "But it's not obnoxious."

In some ways, the restaurant feels the most L.A. of all the places we've been to so far. The space is stark white, airy and bright. The small tables are filled with men in form-fitting tailored suits and crisp dress shirts - but no ties - many of them lunching with handsome men and women with the requisite well-toned arms and bodies.

"I come here every other day," the manicured suit next to us says, flashing a kindly "Oh you should know better, honey" look when I ask his name. Within minutes, his client arrives, a honeyed blonde in a sleeveless dress. As familiar as she looks, we just can't place her. Dejected, we seek solace in fish tacos and warm shrimp salad.

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