Thrilla on Third

In the nearly 14 years that Cynthia Hirsch has owned and run Cynthia's restaurant on Third Street, she's always been known as an eccentric. If some people have found her antics endearing - flirting with male diners and occasionally yelling at customers, calling women "princess" in tones not always sincere - others have thought her intrusive and downright rude. But in the last two weeks, the balance of opinion has tipped decidedly toward the rude end of the scale. On January 8, a rainy Saturday night, Hirsch indulged in a remarkable tirade, reports of which - an e-mail chronicling the scene has shot across town - have tapped an undercurrent of resentment against her. Outraged customers once humiliated by Hirsch have come out of the woodwork to commiserate. Everyone from managers at Paramount to editors at Bon Appétit to the gossip blogger at LA.com have joined the fray. The story is this: A group of 11 friends in their early 30s had gathered at Cynthia's for the birthday dinner of Lorie Juckett, an assistant at Paramount. One of the guests, Jodi Teitelman, ordered the lamb special. According to Teitelman, her lamb came out of the kitchen room temperature, and she asked for the order to be redone. The waitress reluctantly took the plate back into the kitchen, and returned with the same piece of lamb reheated. Teitelman asked the waitress to remove the item from the bill. A few minutes later, Teitelman says, she turned in her seat to see what she describes as a short, stocky middle-aged woman in leather pants standing in the middle of the restaurant, beckoning her with a crooked finger. It was Hirsch. "She gets in my face," Teitelman says, "And she says, ‘Is there a problem here?' I said, ‘My food was cold, I sent it back.' She said, ‘There was nothing wrong with your food. You're an asshole.' Hirsch then told Teitelman that she had to leave the restaurant. "I was just stunned," Teitelman says. "It was just horrible." Two friends came to Teitelman's defense. One, Joe Giadone, approached Hirsch and told her she'd been hurtful, to which he says Hirsch replied, "Your friend's a fucking cow!" The entire restaurant, says Giadone, turned around and was looking at them. "I've been in business for 20 years and you'll never be able to affect me," Hirsch went on. "Get the fuck out of my restaurant." Teitelman's other friend, Marina Garcia, wasn't so lucky. After Hirsch repeated the cow comment, Garcia says, the restaurateur then threw a napkin in her face. (Juckett, Giadone and Teitelman corroborate this.) Garcia admits that she then called Hirsch a "tyrannical cunt" and a bitch before being dragged out of the restaurant by members of her party. By that time, the bill had come - $527, including a $35 cake-cutting fee. The following Monday, Giadone sent out the e-mail, titled "Cynthia's - The WORST Restaurant experience EVER!!" and within days it had criss-crossed L.A. By the 19th, an item had gone up on LA.com. Heather Johns, an editor at Bon Appétit magazine, received the e-mail and on the strength of it canceled a company lunch at Cynthia's. It made its way to the L.A. editor of Zagat. When people looked around the Web for more on Hirsch, they found postings by irate diners. "Cynthia is INCREDIBLY RUDE and INSULTING," begins a review prominently displayed on Citysearch. It goes on to describe a dinner party torn asunder when Hirsch approached a party of four to demand that they finish their meal because she wanted their table back. On Chowhound.com, the foodie chat site, a man recounted Cynthia sitting uninvited at his table, flirting with one friend while insulting the others. Meanwhile, more horror stories were pouring into Giadone's inbox. Some of them reiterated the standard complaints - Hirsch was rude, she bragged about her celebrity clientele. There were several stories about customers who wanted to order just dessert, even on off-nights or when the restaurant was empty, and consistently incurred her wrath. Lauren and Jesse, who requested their last names not be used and who had continued to patronize the restaurant despite previous intriguing experiences with Hirsch, went to Cynthia's to celebrate their engagement with a bottle of champagne and some of the renowned blackberry cobbler. Hirsch was effusive, congratulating and hugging them, says Lauren, but when they told her they only wanted dessert and champagne, she blew up, yelling, "You're taking up my time for dessert? Get the fuck out of my restaurant! This is not Marie Callender's!" Hirsch opened the door and ushered them out. "I don't ever want to see you again!" On Friday we reached Hirsch on the phone at her restaurant to discuss the e-mail and the other allegations. Her initial reaction was curt. "I'm not interested at all in talking to you," she said, and hung up the phone. We called back, and she was somewhat more expansive. "I've been in business for 20 years, I don't need to defend myself over one thing," Hirsch said. "I'm sick to death of people who come in here who think they're going to hang out with somebody famous and when we don't give them the right amount of attention." Hirsch went on to claim that her interaction with Teitelman didn't go down the way it's portrayed in the e-mail: "She left out the part where she threw a martini at me. And she also left out the part when I went over to say ‘I'm sorry the lamb wasn't up to par, but if you'd like I can get you something else.' And then she gave me about a 15-minute diatribe about how she was going to ruin my restaurant because I didn't come to her table all night." (Teitelman says that is all false. "She flat-out full-on lied.") Hirsch further claimed that she has the entire incident on tape, as captured by the restaurant's security cameras. She also claimed her business has not declined but improved since the e-mail went out. "I have never had better business. It's usually slow after the first night of the year. It has been packed every night." After more comments on l'affaire Teitelman, she said, "Quite frankly, I'm sick of defending myself. I don't care," and hung up the phone again. We called a third time, and Hirsch yelled into the phone: "Write whatever you like. I don't care. Just remember?: lawsuits!" — James Verini

 

Return of the Branded Man

The semi-subterranean recording complex behind the Capitol Records tower is one of those mythic places that few civilians ever get into, and the grand Studio A, site of all the big Sinatra/Nat Cole/Keely Smith dates, is the facility's spiritual crown jewel. It is said that late in life, Sinatra would regularly book the studio and install a full orchestra, only to show up and announce, "Not today, boys." On a recent Friday afternoon, Studio A was abuzz again, filled with a weird mix of industry hacks, flacks, scribblers and musicians hoping to see another legend perform. Merle Haggard, the hit-making California iconoclast and Country Music Hall of Famer who recently re-signed to Capitol after a 25-year absence, was set to do a deal-celebrating showcase set. Peppered among the gruesome Nashville cats were a family of simple country folk, from Grandpa to toddler, turned out in their best bib & tucker, and while hopes of finding Haggard's outspoken airwave chum Dr. Gene Scott fizzled, Newlywed Game host Bob Eubanks (a promoter of Hag shows in the mid-'60s) did show. Perpetually overrated producer Don Was brought both left thumbs, and oddly enough, there was a drummer from one of San Francisco's most vaunted '60s hippie bands, spouting tales of peace, love and spite as he related how, after he squawked for back royalties, the band's lead singer coolly offered a chauffeur $5,000 to kill him ("because it'd be cheaper than going to court"). Following the obligatory intro mush from a Capitol big wheel ("40 number-one hits . . . poet of the common man . . . we're going to make money on this deal!"), Haggard appeared. Manicured and touched up even to the eyebrows, he launched into an hourlong set that opened with "Unforgettable," title track of Haggard's new album of pop standards. He forgot "As Time Goes By" 's lyrics, did a superb "Pennies from Heaven," then kicked into "The Bottle Let Me Down," a vintage slice of hard-country misery that went upside the head with delightful emphasis. He ran through some of his biggest Capitol hits, played some wig-flipping guitar and, as ever, sang with the interpretive sensitivity and communicative bite that has distinguished him: His performance of the Willie Nelson ballad "It Always Will Be" was indescribably tender and expressive. The generally saturnine Haggard seemed disturbingly happy as he took the gathering through his career to date how his primary influence was Lefty Frizzell ("I asked him why he never wore a hat onstage. He said, "Oh man, you try singin' "Alwa-a-a-a-ys La-a-a-te" with a hat on it'll take off like a UFO!"), and how he stole not only an old Fred Maddox gag ("Being back here, it feels just like yesterday." Pause. "And you know what a hell of a day yesterday was . . .") but "the sound that we established here that is, the sound we stole from Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens." Haggard's band, the Strangers, featured both the steel guitarist Norm Hamlet and drummer Biff Adam, key longtimers recently sidelined by poor health but now looking dapper-fit. They played at a phenomenal level. Even the novelty romp "Motorcycle Cowboy" got an impossibly lysergic New Orleans second-line ass-shaking arrangement that demonstrated how far these players can go at any given moment, the kind of flexibility and range that made Haggard the only country artist ever to appear on the cover of the jazz bible Downbeat. Capitol stopped the show - likely Hag would've played on indefinitely - so a representative of the Academy of Country Music could announce its new Merle Haggard award (reserved only for those who can match his wins in five of the academy's biggest categories) and presented him with a very large framed proclamation. It was an anticlimactic finish and, perhaps appropriately, about five seconds after Haggard left the room, some clodhopper knocked over the ACM's carelessly placed offering, shattering the glass into a thousand shards. That's country, hoss. —Jonny Whiteside

 

Of Thee I Swing

Dr. Susan Block, whose sexually charged Web site and former cable-TV show have made her a kind of anti-Dr. Laura, threw her fifth annual Eros Day celebration Saturday at her downtown loft, billing the evening as a counterinaugural ball that included "blue entertainment." Lots of locals in all shapes and sizes and varying degrees of inhibition wandered about, some in maid outfits, a few handling snakes, others cross-dressing or just gawking. Amid erotic paintings, George W. Bush masks and vitrines of hand-carved dildos, a copulating couple - Big D and Leila Swan - portrayed Eros and Venus and went at it on a leopard-print bed that was surrounded by amateur photogs, porn geeks, and lots of guys with point-and-shoots. (Block had to ask one enthusiast to withdraw his videocam's lens, which had encroached upon Ms. Swan's no-fly zone to the point that it was almost competing with Big D's . . . big D.) You wanted to yell, "Down in front," but thought better of it because of the unpredictable response. Elsewhere, a Spanish expat named "Los Angeles" had modestly X'd over her nipples with some black electrical tape and fronted a band called Orgasmical. She told me how, after only six months here, she already has made the move up from living in Hollywood to the Westside. There were the brightly wigged bozos of the Porn Klown Posse, the Nymphs of Zorbacchus most of whom pranced nude around a guy dressed as Pan, though some kept on their underwear and Hollie Wood, a porn actress who was happy just to walk around buck-naked and get trussed up with bungee cords. The bacchanal had its serious side, in the form of a fund drive to save the bonobo chimpanzees (a pet project of Block's - bonobos are said to be especially oversexed, and talented enough to perform the act in the missionary position), as well as an opportunity for somber political reflection in the wake of Bush's second inauguration. Since 9/11 and the new puritanism promoted by the Bush administration, Block's writings have become increasingly politicized especially because of the frost that both the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Homeland Security have breathed upon Americans' First Amendment rights. (Block's essays can be found on Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Claire's Counterpunch Web site.) The administration's Cromwellian disdain for skin has set Block on a tear, and, true to her colors, she was attired Saturday night in Democratic blue, right down to her halter top and stockings. Block encouraged the partiers, many of whom paid $75 admission, to get wild, naked and outrageous you know, to swing. Most of the people I saw, however, seemed to belong to the great electorate of voyeurs, preferring to watch the ball's performers, such as the dominatrix who peed into a bowl that was eventually accepted by a thirsty tranny wearing a blue maid's outfit. The good doctor, who was miked and followed by a video camera for the evening, offered revelers a champagne glass filled with "female ejaculate." When Block passed the flute to me, I admitted that I was on the wagon, and she tactfully retreated. My wife and I left after a couple of hours of eyes-wide-shut partying and so never knew if everyone took it all off later. I think the answer, however, could be found at the crowded buffet table that featured caviar or at the mobbed free bar. For most of the people there, on the anniversary date of the Roe v. Wade decision, it seemed to be more a matter of sturgeon roe versus wading through the drinkers than going wild. But I wondered, as we headed for the stairs, if sex and the right to have it, show it and shout about it will now become the frontline of protest in a country bored by policy debates and resigned to endless war. Forget the old NEA battles over blasphemy and obscenity perhaps now we've entered a phase when the porn stars and suburban swingers of enlightened ridicule are our best hope against the newest cold war. —Steven Mikulan

 

Overheard . . .

Saturday night at a pre-screening discussion between directors Curtis Hanson and Alexander Payne about Michael Curtiz's 1950 The Breaking Point, chosen by Payne for UCLA's "The Movie That Inspired Me" series. Hanson: "Did you deliberately have your actors talk quickly in Sideways?" Payne: "Yeah, it's a long script."

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