It is high noon at Ma Maison, the choice Hollywood watering hole. The Astroturf-covered parking lot is stacked almost three deep with Mercedes-Benzes, Ferraris and Rolls Royces. Inside the brown wooden fence surrounding the outdoor dining room, baskets of geraniums, hanging plants and fresh flowers create a lush sensually for the Famous Faces chowing down on the wrought iron tables covered in sheets designed by Suzanne Pleshette.
In the center room Bill Cosby stabs at a slab of butter on his stainless-steel bread plate, barely noting the presence of Cheryl Tiegs, who peers over the tulips at Janet de Cordova, wife of "Tonight" show producer, Freddie. Across the room, super agent Sue Mengers hunkers down for a tete-a-tete with Barbara Howar as Victor Drai, boy friend of Jacqueline Bisset, strides up the Astroturf ramp. He is wearing second-skin jeans, cowboy boots and a slashed-to-the-navel shirt, which functions only as a backdrop for the thick gold chain and cigarette lighter on leather thong that bounces against his brown, exposed chest.
Roger Vadim already was seated as were producer Freddie Fields and David Janssen, when the arrival of Phyllis George prompted one woman to inquire of another if George and husband producer Bob Evans (officially separated, now) were "still living together?" "Well," came the reply, "let's just say she's in residence."
Suddenly the room stops. Forkfuls of poached sea bass and chicken salad pause midair. Heads turn. Eyes fixate on the door expecting to see, one assumes, Redford, Streisand, Newman ...
But, no, it is David Begelman, recently embattled former chiefs of Columbia Pictures, fresh back from two weeks recuperation in Aspen. Smiling and tanned. Begelamn with his wife, Gladyce strols confidently across the room.
"God, you're really got to hand it to David." whispers one producer in the wake of the power that has just passed him. "He really has taken this whole thing very well."
"Yup, no question about it," his friend replies. "For a guy who just scored a $2-million deal from his ex-company, David's taking it all like a real champ."
Exactly what Ma Maison is, depends on whom you talk to Freddie Fields and Ed McMahon think it's an office, often beginning their days there with a coffee cup in one hand, a phone in the other. Nora Ephron describes it as "one of the few hang-outs where food is the real reason to go there." And Barbara Howar calle it " the best eyeballing in southern California."
But no matter. Why one goes to Ma Maison is not nearly so important as getting there in the first place. Which is no mean feat in a resturant that has unlisted telephone number, takes no one who walks in off the street, and says that 80 percent of its launch business and 60 percent of its dinner clientele are daily returnees who include David Frost, John and Mo Dean, Rod Stewart, "Rocky" producer Idwin Winkler, Olivia Newton-John, Neal Diamond and, Gene Kelly who put up 5,000 of the original $35,000 used to start the restaurant.
But then, admits 35-year-old owner Patrick Terrail, "we are fairly selective in our clientel. People want to be with their peers. I decided from Day. One I wanted my restaurant to be a certain way and somehow I've managed to create that mystique.
"Am I a snob? Only if being a snob means having good manners, respecting what I do, respecting what my chef does and keeping my customers happy. As I said, I want my restaurant to be one particular way." Minding Manners
And that it is. Thanks, says a friend, to Terrail's penchant for "always being in control.There are very few absolutes in the world, but Patrick is one of them."
By 9:30 each morning, Terrail is at the restaurant, answering the endlessly ringing phones and arranging the fresh flowers - as he does daily. His dress is impeccable - French-cut suits, carnation in his lapel, clogs on his feet. By 11:30 he is furiously chainsmoking Marlboros, switching rapidly from English to French as he directs waiters. When the onslaught of Guccis, gold chains and $200 jeans begin parading down the Astroturi, their wearers know to check in first with Terrail. He greets them by name, kisses the woman, shakes the men's hands, exchanges gossip.
By 1:30 the place is full, the phone still ringing. He answers. "Dinner reservations for 5:30? Madame, we're still serving lunch at 5:30."
While he is talking, a slight, blond man arrives. Impatiently, he demands a table. "Do you mind if I get off the phone first?" answers Terrail. The man minds, repeating his demand. "Sir," retorts Terrail his tone of voice signaling the end of the conversation, "I am afraid this is a call from China, so if you'll have a drink, I'll get to you in a minute."
Turning away Terrail smiles at a visitor. "I don't know who he is, but he's going to have to wait a long time. What's important to me are the guys who feed me everyday. Besides, I don't care who you are. In my place you have to have good manners. Who does that blond kid think he is anyway?"
When told it is Peter Firth, one of this year's Oscar nominees for best supporting actor, Terrail simply shrugs. "Well, he's STILL going to have to wait his turn." Feeding Power
At first Ma Maison looks more like a humburger joint than Hollywood's hottest bistro. Where lunch runs from $12-$15 and dinner, $22-$25 sans wine. "The first time anyone sees this place, the reaction is always the same," says Richard Rothstein, lawyer, screenwriter and one of Terrail's oldest friends. "You look at it and think "This is it ? This is where it all happens?' Even the "Jags in the driveway are deceiving because judging from the outside you just figure you' - have accirentally run into some Kuwaiti peasants gathered on Melrose Avenue for a family meal."
When Terrail turned 30 he decided it was time he settled down. And "Ma Maison was my way of doing it." Not that he was exactly a novice in the business. Terrail is the fourth generation of a French restaurant family whose successes include Paris' acclaimed Tour d'Argent. As a kid, he lived in Greece, where he was a champion sailor. At 16 he left his family and their money to put himself through Cornell's Hotel and Restaurant Management School, following up with stints as a Pan American steward, apprenticeships in places like New York's El Morocco and The Four Seasons. His uncle is former international opera singer George London, now director of the Washington Opera.
Ma Maison is eclectic. Cozy. Charming.The Astroturf carpeted outdoor dining room features plastic windows set into collapsible walls of heavy yellow and green flowered plastic normally found on one's kitchen table. The upstairs houses three tiny private dining rooms, while the downstairs room, originally a carpet warehouse, is a lived-in-looking French parlor, its tables covered with dark rose and white cloths, its walls cluttered with, among other things, Terrail's menu collection. Lighting the place, the chandelier, looking like a relic from an El Paso saloon, hovers gracefully at a 45 degree angle over an imitation Persian rug that is, as Rothestein puts it, "40 years old and dangerous."
It is this room, says Terrail, that is reserved for "the heavies" - like Orson Welles who has taken of late to strolling in by himself for his meals. "That," assures Terrail, "is the ultimate compliment . . . when somebody like Welles feels comfortable enough about my place, to come in and sit down alone to have a meal."
Terrail claims he's not awed by stardom, is, in fact, barely cognizant of the power he feeds. With some exceptions, of course. "Betty Ford. When she walked in for luch, I must say I was very impressed. After all, she was the president's wife." Spaced Out
If there is any common denominator Uniting Ma Maison devotees, it is their near-fanatical loyalty to the place. Suzanne Pleshette and husband Tommy Gallagher eat there several nights a week; Columbia's Dan Melnick, then with MGM, had Ma Maison cater the opening party of "That's Entertainment" two years ago at the Cannes Film Festival and agent Sue Mengers says simply that Ma Maison "is our answer to Elaine's. Los Angeles is so spread out you just never know who's in town, so if you want to find out, you go to Ma Maison because sooner or later everybody is going to end up there." And besides, she ads, "Patrick is a wonderful host. He always remembers what you eat, what you drinks and where you want to sit."
To those who frequent Ma Maison - or perhaps more accurately those who would like to - Terrail has become something of a social arbiter. It was, not, however, exactly what you'd call a meteoric rise. "Ma Maison opened to mixed reviews, had a slow build and has now developed into the hottest ticket in town," says "Grease" producer and early patron, Allan Carr.
In fact, as Carr tells it, it wasn't so very long ago that Hollywood's hot spot for lunch was The Daisy, a boite whose star fell the day it announced it was going to charge to rent tables on a year basis causing opinion makers simply to pick up their Vuitton bags and head for Ma Maison.
And why Ma Maison?
Tables, says Carr. Well-spaced tables.
"There's enough room between tables at Ma Maison so you can discuss business without everybody in town knowing about it," he says. "The other restaurant put their tables so close together that you'd discuss a movie deal at lunch, only to discover that by the time you got back to the office, the guy at the table next to yours had already bought the rights."
And of course, there is the socializing, even though as Carr takes pains to point out, "you don't go to Ma Maison to be SEEN, you go there to see everybody you know. Why I remember the time I was sitting at lunch with Nancy Walker and who should come flying across the room but Warren Beatty. He was just dying to meet Nancy and just went on and on about how he's always been a fan and how he always wanted to meet her . . . and how funny he thought she was . . . and how much she reminded him of his mother . . . it was really wonderful. Peopling the Canvas
Now, obviously, such loyalty does not go unnoticed even, shall we say, in the most bizarre of circumstances.
When a four-count felony complaint against David Begelman was filed by a California district attorney, it included a forgery charge for a $25,000 check endorsed in the name of Pierre Groleau a partner in Ma Maison. Now, normally, such an . . . oversight - as it is alleged - might cause a restaurant owner some distress. But not Terrail. "It doesn't mean anything. The check was made out to Pierre of Ma Maison so, of course, it did include the restaurant indirectly. But neither of us saw the check until the district attorney showed it to us. Where we angry with David? No, after all, everybody is entitled to his own weaknesses. And it didn't hurt us any. We didn't lose any money."
And did Begelman apologize?
"Well," says Terrail, "He, of course, said he was sorry for the noise it caused. But everything is okay. In fact, he was back in here for lunch last Saturday."
Besides, the way Terrail views the restaurant business, a Begelman in residence is more valuable than a Mona Lisa hanging over the bar. "Running a restaurant is like painting," as he puts it. "Ma Maison is my canvas and as an artist you have to color the room so it is attractive. And people make the color."
Especially in Hollywood where people devote their lives to being known by their faces. But even that, says Terrail, can be tricky. "In Hollywood the guy is No. 2 today, could be No. 1 tomorrow. As a result, I've picked up a lot of tabs in my time."
And would that be reciprocated if the places were changed? Does he think his customers are really his friends? Terrail pauses. "I know who my real friends are. And I also know that they day I close this place down, half the people wouldn't remember my name." Beyond Trendiness
By 3 the lunch crowd has thinned and Terrail is sitting down to his own lunch of pate, calves liver, a beer. (He doesn't drink hard liquor.) Al Ruddy, Oscar-winning producer of "The Godfather" stops by he table, as does producer Fields, who after calling his office with a script change, sits down to join Terrail.
Fields launches into a conversation about his private life. He is, he says, in the process of getting his second divorce. Terrail, meanwhile, says he doesn't have any private life - or at least hasn't had for the last three years. "Ma Maison has been my day life, my night life, my work life, my private life. That's why I'm successful."
And unmarried. There hasn't he claims, been time. "And besides," he shrugs, "it's very hard to find a real woman around today anyway."
Fields nods, agreeing. "In this town," he carefully explains, "men see so much beauty that they assume a girl is going to be intelligent along with it. The trouble is, men out here never get past the beauty to see the brains."
Judging from the ongoing stream of beautiful women strolling in and out one might think Ma Maison could be a terrific set-up for a bachelor.
"I don't," sniffs Terrail, "hustle in my own restaurant, if that's what you mean. Besides, in Los Angeles, all the smart, intelligent women are taken.They aren't on the party circuit."
At 5 Fields gets up to leave. In a corner a couple is still lingering over lunch as the waiters work around them setting up for dinner. The phone rings. Jackie Bisset says she will be in later with Drai for dinner. It rings again. Alan Ladd Jr., 20th Century-Fox production head, books for Friday.
Ma Maison, someone says, has certainly become a trend. No, says Terrail, it isn't. "I don't know how long my run will be," he says as he walks to the bar, "but I do know I've passed the point of being a trend."
Returning with that afternoon's luncheon receipt, he studies it for a minute, and a slow smile crosses his face.
"I was a little nervous at lunch. We raised our prices today."