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

Some power spots are more popular after dark, like Musso and Frank Grill in Hollywood, where Jimmy Stewart and Orson Welles were regulars back in the day. Charlie Chaplin supposedly had dinner there so frequently that he was given his own booth. But when we drop in for a drink at the wood-paneled bar, we're surrounded by nothing but casually dressed tourists. As we slink out, I imagine Chaplin turning over in his grave.

We have high hopes for Cut Beverly Hills, the restaurant that Wolfgang Puck opened in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in 2006. Jeffrey Katzenberg, Chris O'Donnell and Courteney Cox are among those who've been spotted there. But the scene is disappointingly ordinary the night we try it.

We decide to check out Katsuya: The Hollywood branch regularly pops up in tabloid magazines as a place where you can see the Brad Pitts of the world. And the restaurant's a zoo. Its thumping soundtrack is ear-splitting, and the bar area is packed with the young, slender and well tanned. Just as we're wondering whether it's worth hanging around, Andy Dick (plus entourage) sashays through, disappearing into a table at the back - and never reappearing. Still, it's a great start. But - that's also it for the night. No more stars.

We hit the Ivy, which the paparazzi regularly stake out in hopes of catching a starlet at lunch. But even the "paps" are absent on this afternoon. We drown our sorrows in massive mugs of coffee and crabs Benedict with herbed hollandaise.

Our hunt is not going well. Perhaps we're having lunch at the wrong times? Or the stars have all gone on vacation?

Before we give up, there's a classic to check out. In the early afternoon at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a majestic pink building circled by slender palm trees rocketing toward the sky, all seems quiet at the Polo Lounge. A pianist is gently picking out tunes; waiters in starched jackets are gliding across a plush carpet.

We sink back into our green velvet banquettes, taking in the subdued elegance of the room. "This is old Hollywood," says Albert, a TV writer friend who's taking a quick break from his duties on the CW's new show "Nikita" to grab some lunch.

He's right. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin used to drink themselves silly in this room in the 1950s. The restaurant, in fact, was named for stars such as Spencer Tracy and Will Rogers, who were patrons as well as polo players. And in the 1940s, a headstrong regular at the bar named Marlene Dietrich managed single-handedly to change the restaurant's dress code for women when she showed up one day wearing slacks. The writer Dominick Dunne, also a Polo Lounge regular, once told the Los Angeles Times, "I've just seen everyone in the world there."

We, however, see no one much. But then we consider: Maybe our quest has been a bit misguided. We've traipsed all over Los Angeles in search of celebrities at the city's power lunch spots. And in the process, we've enjoyed Kobe steaks, lovely and marbled with fat; lobster pasta; a memorable steak salad. Maybe we've been so keen on seeing the stars that we haven't focused on what's right in front of us.

So now, we start to pay attention to the food: Hefty slices of smoked Santa Barbara salmon come paired with lovely, crisp little disks of potato blinis; a healthy dollop of creme fraiche is topped with a sprinkling of caviar.

We're so caught up in the business of finally savoring lunch that we almost miss it when a small, lithe man walks in, surrounded by a posse of suits. "Is that . . . ?" I begin. Albert nods. Silently, we watch as Prince passes our table.

It's not until we've paid and are getting up to leave that we realize that the young waif with the tumble of blond hair in the next banquette looks an awful lot like Avril Lavigne.

Tan is a New York-based writer whose food memoir, "A Tiger in the Kitchen," will be published by Hyperion in February.

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