Eating: The art of Hollywood dining

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The Independent Culture
ARE YOU, or are you not, booth-worthy? It's one of the big questions of the late 20th century. I watched one night as Abel, the mischievous maitre d' of The Atlantic Bar & Grill, was bombarded on all sides by people desperate for a booth.

He had a great system. Anyone who asked for a booth was put at a Siberian table. Anyone young, gorgeous, skinny and, excuse me, but stupid enough to not know how to spell booth, was given one. Hee hee. Restaurants may look like the very pillars of capitalist society, but they run on socialist ideals.

The booth, of course, is an inherently socialist ideal in itself. There can be no head of the table, nor anyone below the salt. Everyone owns and controls an equal amount of space and status. Not only that, but everybody gets to see, and be seen. That's why booths are so desirable, and why they are so glamorous.

Early booths, in tea rooms and pie'n'mash palaces, were not so glamorous, but when the booth met Hollywood in the 1940s, the sparks really started flying. No great star had to read the fan magazines or listen to their agent to find our how great they really were. All they had to do was try to get a booth at The Brown Derby, La Rue, The Players or Romanoff's. Especially Romanoff's. This joint was so popular that at lunch time, the five prized "A" booths across from the bar were all permanently booked. The first was reserved by Humphrey Bogart, the second by William Morris agent Abe Lastfogel, the third by Louis B Mayer, the fourth by Darryl Zanuck and the fifth by Harry Cohn.

Booths allowed Hollywood photographers free access to the best sides of the stars - their public faces. Movie-goers were fed a steady diet of glamorous studio-approved publicity shots like the one of Bogart and Bacall with pals John Garfield and Peter Lorre all cosily snuggled up in the padded, studded, rich gold leather booth at La Rue. If they weren't there, they were pictured in a convertible sports car - and what was that but a booth on wheels?

It was the Brown Derby that gave birth to that delicious Hollywood habit - now sadly ruined by the upwardly mobile telephone - of delivering telephones to the table to either take or make a call. They had to, as the very act of getting out of a booth was exceedingly difficult after three Gibsons and a Manhattan. Two more Manhattans and it was a piece of cake - one slid.

Eating breakfast one morning in the dining room of the Beverley Hills Hotel, I soon discovered that I was in fact the only one there to eat breakfast. One apparently went there in order to talk on the telephone. In the next booth, Zsa Zsa Gabor was having a heart-to-heart with her agent. Across the way, a familiar-looking elderly gentlemen had the telephone brought to him no less than five times during one cup of coffee.

I surreptitiously asked the busboy who it was. "Oh he's, um, er, very famous after the war," came the enthusiastic reply. "Great actor." He was then called to procure another telephone for whatsisface, and swept away. Not to be outdone, I called for a telephone to my own booth. It came promptly, and I calmly and efficiently made the call. The time at that very moment was eight 10 and 30 seconds, precisely.

Like most people, I do love a good booth. They make me feel secure. The power of the booth, I suspect, goes right back to our childhood playpens. They, too, were easy to get into, and hard to get out of. After the first month in which you explored the territory and navigated your way around to discover it had four walls, you could relax and feel safe and protected, while still being aware of the world around you.

Besides, nice people kept coming up to you, bringing you food, smiling a lot, and making soft, soothing sounds that had a pleasant, calming effect on you. So today, the booth is our playpen, the closest thing we grown- ups have to a de-militarised zone, a place we can call our own, a private world in a public space. And you thought getting a table was difficult.