At least twice a day for the past eight years, I’ve driven past the Manor Hotel, which houses the Church of Scientology Celebrity Center International. But it was not until last month that I noticed a plastic sign affixed to its outer wall: “Renaissance Restaurant — Open to the Public.”
I am perversely interested in checking out the place, but the friends I mention this to are less than enthralled. “Bring brass knuckles and Mace,” one friend helpfully suggests. Another wonders aloud whether the waiter will slip a personality test under my napkin. Funny.
I know from experience that their concerns — that I will be strapped to a chair and forced to listen to Chick Corea music, or watch Battleship Earth until its cockamamie creed makes consummate sense — are unfounded. Years ago, I was the assistant to a screenwriting Scientologist who practiced none of the church’s tenets while availing himself of every financial perk membership offered, and was hence constantly being called before church tribunals. He’d dictate long, complicated, bafflingly opaque letters pleading his case, which I’d deliver to some Celebrity Center pooh-bah, an iron maiden in pearls who seemed to regard me not so much as a potential parishioner as a blob of bronchial phlegm. Still, I sort of dug the Celebrity Center’s faux-grand Midwest-hotel ambiance and the preternaturally happy drones buzzing about in nautical regalia.
“Oh, I’d love to go to Ron’s restaurant,” says my friend Marc, who, at 220-plus pounds, has no fear of forced inculcation.
We make our way past the Range Rovers in the driveway and into a hall displaying gilt-edged awards from the city (“This one’s signed by Jackie Goldberg,” Marc points out). Behind a velvet rope is the purported office of founder L. Ron Hubbard, a soul-deadeningly dull den straight out of 1950s TV, with Ethan Allen–like appointments and a wall of locked bookcases holding what must be a ton of Scientology tomes whose spines don’t appear to have been cracked.
At the end of the hall is Renaissance. There are brass sconces on the trompe l’oeil walls, white linens on the tables, morning glories painted on the ceiling and a French maitre d’.
“Right this way,” he says, escorting us to a table overlooking several acres of garden, its foliage and tinkling fountain utterly buffeting the traffic on Franklin.
“This looks like the Bois de Boulogne with palm trees,” says Marc. “Who else can afford this kind of oasis in the middle of Hollywood? It’s probably the largest piece of open space between Griffith Park and Beverly Hills.”
I hadn’t held out much hope for the food — I had figured on lots of pesto in inappropriate places. I was wrong. Lobster salad comes with fennel and greens and black-truffle oil, risotto with wild mushrooms and two cheeses. There’s a 20-ounce grilled buffalo entrecôte.
“Let’s check out the wine list,” Marc says.
Tempted by a $500 bottle of Montrachet, Marc settles for cabernet by the glass, which the maitre d’ pours into a crystal balloon; Marc compliments the stemware.
“Yes, it is a beautiful restaurant,” the maitre d’ says. “Everything first-class.”
There are only two other diners at lunch on a Thursday, so he lingers.
“You know, when I take the job here, my father-in-law, he say, ‘No! You must put garlic around your neck and run the other way!’ Then he answers the question I am dying to ask. “But I am not a Scientologist.”
Are most of his customers?
“Yes, because they come here from all over the world to stay in the hotel, to do their business.” He nods as a waiter places our meals before us. “Bon appétit!”
There is an entire lobster nuggeted throughout my salad, which is massive and delightful.
“This is good,” says Marc, closing his eyes as he chews a cremini. “Not great, but very solid food.”
The maitre d’ pours Marc more wine, on the house, which I see as unremittingly generous, and also an indication that the place is trawling for new customers.
“How long has that sign been out on Franklin?” I ask the maitre d’.
“That is new,” he says. “People, you know, they don’t come; they think it is only for Scientologists. But it’s not; it’s a good restaurant, a beautiful restaurant. Dessert?”
I order Pommes Normande, a sizzling tarte tatin without the crust that comes with several cups of softly whipped cream. Marc and I play dueling spoons, vying for the last of the caramelized sauce. With coffees, the bill is less than $50.
“Please, you will come back for Sunday brunch,” says the maitre d’, handing us each a $5-off chit. “And if you lose the coupons, you tell them I have given them to you.”
“They must be hurting for cash,” I whisper to Marc. “Why do you think they even keep the place open?”
“I think it must be a flaunt thing. Scientologists are into that,” he says. “Good food, though. I’d come back.”
5930 Franklin Ave., Hollywood; (323) 960-3222. Open for dinner seven days a week, 5:30–10 p.m. Entrées start at $17; three-course dinner specials run between $25 and $30. Wine and beer. Parking on Bronson Avenue. AE, MC, V.