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.

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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