In a season when Americans traditionally give blessings for the God-given food on their tables, studio honchos should also bow their heads and thank their corporate parents: From Sony’s art deco Rita Hayworth Dining Room to Disney’s Rotunda, executive dining on the studio lot has never been better or more businesslike.
Of all the studio eateries, Universal’s is the newest, has the best food, and is the only one with a Starbucks annex. Paramount’s Commissary is the most sedate, Sony’s is the best designed and Disney’s Rotunda is the priciest (with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich for $13.95).
Twentieth Century Fox is still building its new room, with superstar chef Joachim Splichal rumored to be cooking. DreamWorks’ is still only a blueprint.
Warner Bros. is resistant to journalistic inquiries regarding its facility, but studio co-chairmen Terry Semel and Bob Daly don’t eat there anyway; they have their own private dining room.
After a gourmet tour of studio eateries, however, one thing is clear: It ain’t the chow that’s important. When the tribe hunkers down for its daily repast, ritual and symbolism are the rule. Who goes to which lot, who sits where and what kinds of food are served — it’s all about power.
First and foremost is the traditional commissary makeover. New studio regimes customarily announce them-selves by putting the executive dining room menu through a rewrite and re-designing the decor.
Former Sony studio chief Peter Guber’s overhauling of the old MGM commissary was one extravagant example. The well-worn eatery, which some say had the homey feel of a Lower East Side deli, still featured Louis B. Mayer’s mother’s chicken soup on the menu.
Sony’s lavish spending turned it into the Rita Hayworth Dining Room, an art deco showplace with Tiffany flatware, fine china and $15 hamburg-ers. Today, the post-Guber half-pound beef or turkey burger is $10.
Excesses toned down
The Tiffany service has gone the way of all moguls, however. Under the regime of Allen Levine (himself now departed), the excesses of the past were quietly toned down. Guber’s private dining quarters in the Thalberg building became a conference room.
The menu at the Rita Hayworth Dining Room underwent yet another rewrite; some saw a resemblance to the menu at the Hillcrest Country Club, where Levine is a longtime member.
These days, the matzo ball soup is a thin, veggie-studded broth surrounding a perfectly formed sphere that appears more like a visual effect turned out by Sony Imageworks than what Louis B. Mayer’s mother had in mind.
The ambience is somewhat buoyant, which may have something to do with the studio’s billion-dollar year.
Universal Grill’s new look
While Universal is passing the hat to finance films, sold off its TV division to Barry Diller and the stock price of parent company Seagram has stalled, the studio’s makeover for the Universal Grill seems to have spared no expense — from the cool maple wood and vintage movie poster decor of the main room to executive chef Andrew Humbert, a Paul Prudhomme protege, overseeing the kitchen.
The redesign was intended to eliminate the competition for tables considered power spots. But every studio’s exec dining room has its own feng shui. At the Rita Hayworth, the CEO banquette in the southwest corner is where Sony chief John Calley likes to sit. Talent tends to flock to the northwest corner.
The seating voodoo of the Para-mount Commissary’s split-level room generally requires top execs to perch on the elevated area. The ultimate power spot is table nine, in the northwest corner, where Viacom mogul Sumner Redstone and his chairman Jonathan Dolgen sit. It is the only table with a telephone.
The Rotunda, Disney’s exec dining room on the fifth floor of the Team Disney building, is round, though, and it frustrates power sitters. Film chief Joe Roth plunks down to the left of the maitre d’ podium. He can see everyone who enters and everyone who enters can see him.
Disney chairman Michael Eisner is frequently behind one of the columns off-center, “hiding in plain sight,” one frequent diner observes. Chief operating officer Sandy Litvack hovers near the boss.
At Universal, booth 54 in the southeast corner is where Frank Biondi and Casey Silver huddled on a recent noontime. Nearby sat execs Hal Lieberman with Nikki Rocco, and underneath a potted palm, agent Jack Rapke with his one o’clock.
Former Universal chairman Lew Wasserman occupied his customary table against the back wall. Among his favorite dishes is pepperoni pizza served by Anne Klein, a 35-year studio veteran who has been personally waiting on Wasserman’s table for all this time. Wasserman likes to pick the pepperoni off the pizza and leave the rest.
Universal chief operating officer Howard Weitzman, who personally directed the Grill’s redesign, is usually at one of the booths on the north side of the room.
Under manager Libby Wick, the Universal Grill service is attentive, the operations smooth at a volume of 250 lunches served each day, with an additional 75 more delivered by room service. Chef Humbert is often on the floor adding a personal touch.
The Paramount Commissary, where studio brass take their noontime meals, was once upon a time the old RKO commissary, a fabled place where real movie stars actually sat down to eat.
“It was like going to a circus,” recalls screenwriter Fay Kanin. “They came in makeup and costume. This magic world of make-believe,” Kanin sighs. “Now it all seems so businesslike.”
Recently, studio publicists Blaise Noto and CeCe Horwich were huddled at one table with producer Bob Cort. Studio chief Sherry Lansing was dining al fresco on the patio. The atmosphere was positively somnolent.
Paramount hipsters wanting an off-the-lot experience head across the street to the Raleigh Studios Cafe. The Cafe’s hubbub of indie filmmakers and stars, rock video auteurs and commercial shooters is an everyday contrast to the sedate scene on the other side of Melrose.
All of the studio eateries are in-house operations, usually subsidized for the benefit of the employees. But Disney’s Rotunda is run by Marriott Management Services.
Cathy Boyle, a Marriott spokeswoman, says the general trend in corporate catering has been to cut back on exec dining expenditures.
On a recent Thursday, however, the Rotunda menu featured, in addition to the precious ham and cheese, curry and lemon grass marinated seafood “served over sticky Japanese rice,” tagged at $17.25.
Apple pie and ice cream will set you back $6.75 as opposed $5 for a slice at the Universal Grill.
The rodent motif, carved into the backs of the chairs and emblazoned on the china, is a strangely unappetizing touch.
Another odd thing noticed by guests visiting for lunch meetings with Disney execs is that they nearly always find themselves the first to arrive. This in spite of the fact that the exec they are meeting is often ensconced just a floor above or below the Rotunda.
After a moment, the exec magically appears (but only upon a discreet signal from the maitre d’ ).
As a general Hollywood rule, no one should keep a lunch date waiting, warns Rick Leed, president of Wind Dancer Prods. “The other guy will get bored, start working the room, and he’ll be trashing you to everybody else as the schmuck who’s late.”