I’M CONSTANTLY AMAZED how the Hollywood media seem to have no institutional memory when it comes to the Industry’s culture. That’s why no one reported with any fanfare on that show-biz institution Morton’s shutting its doors at the end of the year. Namesake Pam Morton is so verklempt about it, all she could say to me Tuesday was, “It’s time for me to pursue other passions.” Sure, the restaurant has been eclipsed by the Grill for lunch and wherever is trendiest for dinner. And Morton’s is best known to civilians as the site of the Vanity Fair Oscar party. But during its heyday throughout the ’80s and ’90s when the Art of the Deal meant the Art of the Meal, the power players went to Spago for leisurely dinners and to Morton’s for business meetings. Rarely did a negotiation get done in Hollywood without a trip to the dimly lit eatery at the corner of Melrose and Robertson.
First, some forgotten trivia: Producers Larry Gordon and Joel Silver once cast the maitre d’ at Morton’s as a security guard in the first Die Hard. The art of table-hopping at Morton’s was perfected by Jeffrey Katzenberg, who made it like ballet, pirouetting from table to table but never lingering. Spy magazine’s “Celia Brady” ended her columns with the teasing line “See you Monday night at Morton’s.” Frank Sinatra actually talked to reporters and photographers at a private party at Morton’s when he introduced his signature spaghetti sauce. Malcolm Forbes used to list Morton’s as one of his three favorite places on Earth to eat. Larry Tisch took over CBS and then headed to Morton’s during his first meet-and-greet trip to Los Angeles. CAA under Mike Ovitz deemed Morton’s one of only three “approved” restaurants for expense-account dinners. Michael Eisner, then head of production at Paramount, signed young actor Eddie Murphy to a landmark $15 million, five-picture deal over dinner at Morton’s. Later, it was over dinner at Morton’s again that Eisner decided to jump to the Walt Disney Co.
Perhaps nothing illuminates Morton’s place in the Industry’s cosmos more than this anecdote: The year was 1985, and MGM-UA had just split into separate companies. The entertainment industry was searching for clues as to who would ultimately take over the previously contracted-for projects — MGM President Frank Yablans, or United Artists’ new president, Alan Ladd. Jr. Forget the fact that both executives had assured everyone that all the movies in progress were divided on a “mutually cooperative” basis — no one believed them. One night, so the story goes, both men made reservations at Morton’s. Yablans arrived first and was shown to the perfectly placed front table usually occupied by MGM-UA top executives. Ladd arrived a few minutes later to find that all eyes in the dining room were upon him. Where would he be seated? And would it be in a better or worse position than Yablans? Ladd displaced Yablans from the key table. The next day, all of Hollywood claimed to know the score on the MGM-UA schism.
The reason for Morton’s immense influence in show biz was its sheer longevity: In a landscape littered with new restaurants that come and go as fast as bad movies, Morton’s remained the preferred watering hole for the heavy hitters of the entertainment industry. Barry Diller once told me he couldn’t even remember when it wasn’t there. “I’ve been going to Morton’s most of my adult natural life.”
A LITTLE HISTORY is in order.
When the studios covered mega-acres of prime real estate, there was plenty of room to house the offices of producers and stars, who were only too happy to lunch in the commissary. But then studios began selling off their property and there seemed less room for everybody. Plus, the quality of the food at the commissaries, thanks to cost cutting, became execrable. The result was that everyone began renting office space everywhere. Add to that the proliferation of talent agencies and law firms, and the birth of lighter California cuisine, and suddenly there were a lot of three-Perrier meals being charged to Industry expense accounts. “In the past, it was the Brown Derby, Chasen’s, Scandia, Ma Maison and Le Dome. And for my generation, the high-priced commissary clearly is Morton’s,” producer Steve Tisch once ruminated for me.
Most restaurateurs would have been in heaven to see Hollywood’s elite packed potted palm to potted palm. But Peter Morton always stifled a yawn. “What drives me nuts is just the total preoccupation in this town with the entertainment business — where you go to dinner and which movies are going to make money and who’s going to a certain party — and I think that’s boring,” he told me. Of course, he could afford to be blasé because of his Hard Rock Café empire. Besides, his fraternal twin sister Pam actually managed the restaurant with a rare mixture of graciousness and take-no-guff.
At one point, Morton’s moved across the street. Another time, it closed briefly to give both the décor and the menu a face-lift. The food has always been reliably predictable, if boring. You could never get a bad meal at Morton’s, but you also couldn’t get a cutting-edge meal there either. Instead, the place had lore galore.
Regulars like to tell about the time a middle-aged man suffered a heart attack there. Even when he was carried away by paramedics on a gurney, so the story goes, none of the diners bothered to stop their wheeling-dealing long enough to look up and notice he was gone. That may explain why Jack Nicholson often felt comfortable enough to eat dinner alone at the bar some evenings. Or why Pia Zadora, accompanied by her daughter Kady playing her plastic guitar, serenaded the restaurant. Or why James Woods got down on one knee during dinner and asked for his girlfriend’s hand in marriage.
Like any L.A. restaurant, there were “good” tables — and there was Siberia. According to Morton’s conventional wisdom, the better the artwork, the worse the table. As an original investor, producer Jerry Weintraub for a long time used to have an official table marked by a small wall plaque.
Morton’s was hottest on Monday and Thursday nights. That’s when the power was truly palpable. “You never go on a weekend,” Harris Katleman, then president of Twentieth Century Fox television, once told me. “We call it ‘civilian’ night.”
“My theory, based on observation,” Ben Stein explained to me once over dinner there, “is that it’s because people in the biz are so biz-oriented that they get restless over the weekends being home with their families, and by Monday they’re dying to be out and talking deals. And on Thursday, they’re just stocking up on deals to make it through the weekend.”
UNLIKE THE HARD ROCK, the Morton’s duo couldn’t have made a mint franchising their namesake restaurant: It was peculiarly suited to both the people and place. So when Jonathan Tisch, nephew of Larry, asked to put a Morton’s in the CBS building in New York at one point, the twins nixed it. Yet the pair quickly said yes when friends of Don Simpson asked to hold his wake in the restaurant. I was there, and the dead producer would have been kvelling on this Monday night at Morton’s because the room reeked of raw power. Standing, drinking and eating in his honor were the sort of triple-A-list moguls, celebrities and assorted pilot fish never seen in the same place together unless there was major movie money to be made. Yet here they were, their laughter and chat only occasionally punctuated by the click of raised cocktail glasses and audible sighs of “he’s gone.”
Soon, Morton’s will be gone too. Let’s start its wake now.